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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 02/ 3/2008

Freedman: How Should we "Focus the Nation?"

By Andrew Freedman

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Actions aimed at just raising awareness of climate change are becoming increasingly irrelevant, and are being superceded by the need for scientists, journalists and policymakers to begin making more durable connections between climate science and climate policy.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.

By Andrew Freedman  | February 3, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman  
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Your article is spot on. Surprised there have been no comments. Are all this site's readers more interested in the weather than they are in the climate?

Posted by: stuart feldstein | February 3, 2008 12:44 PM | Report abuse

i too am surprised that nobody else has responded, and i wonder whether this is a symptom of the absence of mass engagement generally on climate change. the climate discussion is, for better or worse, still taking place largely among the specialist community in the US - in contrast to Europe and the Japanese - large numbers of whom are putting on sewaters and taking off their neckties to make a difference. where are the marches? i recall the large protests of the 1970s against nuclear power in the US - which i think galvanized that movement (for better or worse) and made politicians pay attention. until there is a sense in the Congress (in particular) that this is not just an issue of the special interest groups, it seems unlikely that the u.s. will take the decisive steps that are needed to effect broad-based change. i for one hope it happens soon.

Posted by: benjiman | February 3, 2008 2:01 PM | Report abuse

The biggest road block, is the economic impact. To many of the biggest polluters are also the biggest contributors to our beloved politicians, so any meaningful action would involve the politicians seperating themselves from some of their biggest contributors. Most of the time that isn't going 2 happen, since their biggest concern is getting re elected. It also doesn't help that anyone who thinks GW is primarily caused by human activity is immediately labeled a wacko Liberal. Until the politics is taken out of the equation, some of our leaders will continue to drag their feet. Last time I checked, Mother Nature had no political affillation. Also, onces their r big profits 2 b made in going green,we willsee a shift in political thinking & actions.
Probably one of the biggest contributors to GW is all the political hot air that comes out of Washington, from both parties.

Posted by: VaTechBob. | February 3, 2008 2:23 PM | Report abuse

I have a serious question.

Has anyone heard of the National Geographic's "6 Degrees Could Change the World" promo/show?

Since we are in a general warming pattern, why is there so much concern over something that is bound to happen?

How many degrees warmer was the world when the best wines came from the vineyards of England?


Posted by: Period | February 3, 2008 5:50 PM | Report abuse

How do you know with such certainty that climate conditions now and in the recent past, are optimum, and that steps MUST be taken to keep things from changing more??

Posted by: anomovfa | February 3, 2008 8:12 PM | Report abuse

C'mon guys, I know someone saw my questions...

Posted by: Period | February 3, 2008 10:24 PM | Report abuse

Period: the concern isn't over an amount of warming that is, as you say, "bound to happen," but rather warming that is caused by human emissions and therefore is outside the range of natural variability. Climate change has far-reaching consequences for human society as well as the natural world upon which we depend. It's not a matter of trying to prevent the inevitable, but rather of trying to shift our activities in a more sustainable direction.

As for your wine question, I don't know the precise time period to which you refer, but in general the Medieval Warm Period featured temperatures well below the six degrees of warming depicted in the Nat'l Geographic Channel's show (which I have not heard of until now, so thanks for the tip). Also, the Medieval Warm Period was not a global phenomenon, but rather was limited to portions of the Northern Hemisphere, primarily Western Europe and N. America, according to most scientific evidence on the subject.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | February 3, 2008 11:17 PM | Report abuse

Period, I believe that was during the Roman Empire into the early Middle Ages when we went through a rather mild spell in Europe. Apparently these things happen in 1,500-year cycles and we're now pulling out of the "Little Ice Age". Human-induced global warming merely adds to the temperature rise.

Posted by: El Bombo | February 4, 2008 9:49 AM | Report abuse

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