This past week, more than 1,000 institutions of learning, mainly colleges and universities, participated in "Focus the Nation," a national "teach-in" on global climate change science and solutions. The event was aimed at raising awareness of climate change and ways to address the challenge that it poses to the global community.
As an environmental journalist, I'm all for awareness raising. But as I helped to plan and carry out Tufts University's Focus the Nation program of events, a nagging question kept confronting me. In this post-"An Inconvenient Truth" era, do efforts directed at raising awareness of global climate change have any tangible influence on environmental policy?
I bring this up on this forum because what to do about climate change is a major issue facing voters in this election year. In my view, it's the biggest weather policy issue in history, of far greater importance than which local TV meteorologist is the most popular, although that does provide for an interesting debate.
It's clear to me that the challenge facing the environmental community today is not the same as it was five, 10 or 15 years ago. With climate change, the American people are likely past the stage of the attention cycle where raising awareness is the key variable to enacting change. Just look at the innovative developments that are already taking place despite existing gaps in awareness, from California to Florida and down to the level of your local Wal-Mart.
While greater awareness is surely a good thing, I think a lack of direction may be the greater stumbling block for people to begin making the connections between the climate change challenge and their everyday actions, including their decisions in the voting booth.
Actions aimed at just raising awareness of climate change are becoming increasingly irrelevant, and are being superceded by the need for scientists, journalists and policymakers to begin making more durable connections between climate science and climate policy.
The most troublesome aspect of this juncture between attention-raising and attention-focusing is that there are a gazillion things that scientists and environmental advocates say need to be done to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing a majority of the present-day climate change. It's not an issue where if one can get their congressman to vote "aye" on a certain bill then blammo, the problem will be solved.
Considering this backdrop, I participated in last week's Focus the Nation events at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., with some skepticism about its potential impact. The concept for Focus the Nation originated with Eban Goodstein, an economics professor at Lewis & Clark College. He and his organizing team designed it to achieve a simultaneous "educational symposia" held across the country.
"Our intent is to move America beyond fatalism to a determination to face up to this civilizational challenge, the challenge of our generation," the national organization's web site states. As the Tufts organizing team saw it, one of the purposes of Focus the Nation was to send a message to political leaders that climate change is an issue they need to take action on.
We accomplished that goal, but came up short on others.
The event went well, and we packed more than 200 students into an auditorium for an engaging discussion on climate change policy with two keynote speakers from the nonprofit world, two congressmen including the chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, as well as a state senator and a local mayor. It was engaging and, at times, inspiring.
But as I watched the undergraduates file out the door after the panel discussion concluded, some of my initial suspicions were confirmed. There was nothing concrete, no take away 'action items' other than a compact fluorescent lightbulb giveaway next week for the students. Lots of people were made more aware of climate change and some of the policies that can help address the problem, but I doubt any of them left with a good idea of what they were going to do about it.
One major change the national organizers could have made was to conceive of Focus the Nation from the beginning as a semester or year-long dialog at colleges and universities to encourage students to devise solutions that they can implement in their daily lives, instead of looking at the event as a one night stand of awareness raising. In fact, Goodstein and his organizing team may now be moving in that direction with follow up initiatives to lobby Washington to act on climate change.
At Tufts, such solutions could include participating on the University's new Solar Decathalon team that is now being put together to build a solar house in a national competition. It might also include adding to the ranks of students who are encouraging dining halls to substitute locally grown food for food that has to travel long distances between its source and the plate, and to lobby the Tufts administration to go further in its sustainability programs until it eventually reduces its carbon emissions to near zero.
For example, every day an old bus nicknamed the "Joey" snakes its way through campus and into the neighboring community to take students to and from the local subway stop. This bus emits both carbon dioxide as well as particulate pollution that can aggravate respiratory illnesses among people in the urban areas around the University. Focus the Nation could have energized efforts to convince Tufts to make a deal with the transportation company that operates the shuttle service to use a more fuel-efficient vehicle. Maybe there are already efforts under way to "green" the shuttle, but the Tufts event could have provided a boost to such work.
Considering the election year, Focus could have put more of an explicit emphasis on the election by requiring each event to have voter registration drives and involve representatives of different campaigns to discuss their climate and energy programs. Some schools did conduct registration drives, but the national emphasis seemed to be more on awareness raising of climate science and solutions.
The lack of a takeaway message and idea for concrete actions for people to follow through on was not unique to Focus the Nation, however. That was one of the main flaws of Al Gore's landmark film and follow up "Live Earth" concerts, and still seems to be missing from a lot of climate change communication on a national level. The end result is that individuals - voters - have every reason to be concerned about climate change, but very little idea of what to do about it.
There are currently three major candidates running for president who are in favor of mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Whether their policies stand any chance of passing depends on how deep the support is in the public for taking such a potentially expensive step. Just as a thin layer of cold air is insufficient to support snow during a winter weather event, it's doubtful that a shallow layer of support will be strong enough to foster the passage of congressional legislation to cut greenhouse gases, especially if such legislation would impose higher costs on consumers.
Thus, awareness-raising events such as Focus the Nation are a worthwhile undertaking, but only if they focus on a substantive set of actionable measures for people to take in their lives to truly create change beyond just changing a light bulb.