Overline: Interview
Headline: Tackling Disinformation on Climate Change

To avert devastating climate change impacts, we need to make dramatic lifestyle changes. Lance Bennett, Professor of Political Science and Communication at the University of Washington and currently IASS Senior Fellow, explains how better communication can help us succeed in changing course.

Lance Bennett
Lance Bennett IASS

Why should we focus on communication rather than specific problems such as recycling or meat consumption?

We know a lot about the political and economic changes that are needed for a more livable future, but what seems currently missing is a communication model that helps citizens, civil society organizations, progressive think tanks and political parties become better aligned. Environmental activists are good at talking about environmental problems, but they lack a broader political strategy and a strong economic message. That is a problem because you cannot dismiss economic needs and political realities if you want to solve the environmental crisis.

Communicating climate policies is not getting any easier as organized attacks on climate science are on the rise.

Disinformation is being produced both by social movements, such as groups that fight immigration or defend fracking, and right-wing parties and politicians. Without the political link to elected offices, the disinformation about migrants, climate change, globalist conspiracies and other nationalist issues would not be as much in the daily news. Journalists can’t stop reporting what Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro or Alexander Gauland says. To counter this daily disruption of our public spheres, what we need is an environmental movement that stops acting like a collection of special interests promoting this problem or that solution. What is missing is a coherent movement with a broad economic message that can engage political parties and leaders. This requires efforts from leading organizations, think tanks and funders to forge stronger idea networks that develop more positive economic ideas in which investment and growth are better balanced with resource consumption, waste processing, and social well-being.

Have you observed any recent developments that integrate economic, political and environmental targets successfully?

The Green New Deal being discussed in the U.S. and by some Greens in Europe is a good example of how the intersections between politics, economics and the environment can work. This simple idea creates positive images of jobs, family and community in productive economies that better serve people and the planet. The impact of these ideas is much greater – particularly among young citizens – than just continuing to sound alarms about a dying planet, or offering narrow and negative-sounding solutions like carbon taxes, which anger many voters. Following its promotion in the US by Democratic politicians – Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey – most of the party candidates in the 2020 US presidential debates stressed the need to take global warming seriously, and to find ways to better integrate economic and environmental policy.

These past few months at the IASS, you have been writing a book that is centered on a model for developing, communicating and implementing ideas for a more sustainable future. Can you outline how this model works?

The book is called Communicating the Future. It describes how ideas can travel, or flow, more widely in society through a process that involves four steps. The first one is the coordinated production of ideas by think tanks, research networks and advocacy organizations – helped by more strategic visions from funders. Then comes the effective packaging of those ideas – for example, changing how we categorize environmental problems by focusing more on economic ideas. This makes it possible to tell more positive stories about work, lifestyle, and the future. These shifts in idea production and communication packaging then lead to the third step, which involves better alignment of currently fragmented political networks, so that diverse organizations can share similar ideas with their own stakeholders. In the final step, this greater unity of ideas about economic transformation is converted into popular pressure for uptake by political leaders and parties.

Has this ever worked in the past?

Yes, just look at that unlikely and utopian brand of free-market or neoliberal economics that swept the world toward the end of the last century. This line of thought was produced and continues to be promoted by an impressively coordinated global network of think tanks and related political funding organizations. But this system is now collapsing due to financial crisis, government austerity, wage stagnation, and loss of popular support in democratic nations. This is a time of opportunity for those concerned about the planet to stop acting like a collection of special interests and think more broadly beyond their messages about carbon taxes, polar bears and melting ice.

So better cooperation is the key to implementing more ambitious climate policies?

In a way this is a model for developing public will and political power behind a fragmented environmental movement that could be doing much better politically than it is. Majorities of publics in most nations are already concerned about the problems we face, but the fragmentation among so many tribes of environmentalists turns the movement into a collection of narrow interests competing for political space. Meanwhile well-organized business interest groups and cautious politicians can just say that all of those specific environmental policies could hurt the economy. After years of losing so much ground, a more rational movement might consider developing a better set of economic ideas and communication strategies.
It is time to develop stronger communication networks that can find ways of talking about economies that invest in more sustainable societies, and provide models for better managing consumption and waste. Unlike the nationalist right, those concerned about sustainability have powerful knowledge on their side. But there is a remarkable lack of coordination across issue sectors, think tanks, research institutes, funders and political parties. The result is poor communication that makes all that scientific knowledge ineffective. Science is under attack from many sides. But the role of scientists is to produce good information, not to develop political strategies. It is the role of NGOs, funders, activists and political leaders to connect the scientific evidence to the root causes of the many problems we face. They must develop clearer visions of how people can work, live and prosper in the future.