Toward Wiser Public Judgment

How can policymakers engage the public in constructive dialogue about complex issues like climate change? Daniel Yankelovich, a co-founder of Public Agenda and a man who has tracked social and market trends for decades, writes on that topic. Toward Wiser Public Judgment, published in 2010, is one of his books.

Simply polling public opinion is not enough to really understand how the public thinks about a complex issue, Yankelovich argues. He believes the public’s “learning curve” begins with consciousness raising, slowly goes through a stage of confronting and working through emotional resistance, including wishful thinking, and only later, perhaps after years or decades, reaches a stable cognitive and emotional resolution. An example would be the public’s evolving attitudes about gay and lesbian rights, attitudes that changed dramatically over a period of years.

Providing information to the public about a complex issue is important, of course, but new information is rarely a decisive factor by itself. People’s emotions, stories and examples they learn about, the views of family and friends, and other factors besides expert information play a critical role in the evolution of people’s opinions. Policy and subject matter experts, as well as the media, overemphasize the importance of information, Yankelovich says. They believe that laying out facts and figures for the public will be enough to change minds.

Several institutions, including Public Agenda, Viewpoint Learning, and the Kettering Foundation’s National Issues Forum, have experimented with ways to engage the public in constructive dialogue about complex problems. In one approach, for example, before bringing together members of the public background materials are prepared that lay out options, such as three or four different value-based positions or scenarios reflecting a range of the public’s views, rather than presenting advocacy positions written from the perspective of experts, as in a typical debate format.

“On issue after issue,” according to two people who have used this approach (Steven Rosell and Heidi Gantwerk), “we have found that when citizens are given an opportunity to look at the bigger picture, to connect the dots, and to engage in dialogue with others from very different backgrounds and perspectives, they think and act more like citizens and less like consumers, they develop a shared community perspective, and they are ready to make and support big changes to advance the common good.”

Using these principles, there have been efforts to engage the public in dialogues related to climate change. For example, in 2013 Viewpoint Learning in partnership with the Union of Concerned Scientists convened two two-day-long dialogues on the subject of sea-level rise. One conclusion was that starting with possible actions (responding to sea-level rise) is a better starting point than dialogues based on ideology or scientific argument because it more quickly moves people along the learning curve and allows participants to find more areas of common ground.

Although Americans believe that climate change is a reality, the issue still ranks as a low priority for the public. Engaging large numbers of people in face-to-face dialogue might lead to more mature judgments but would take a long time and be expensive. Nonetheless, it might be worthwhile to conduct a series of structured dialogues in one or two states, as a pilot effort, focusing on several value-based options for state policies regarding climate change. Perhaps enough influential stakeholders, such as mayors or newspaper editors, could be brought together with a wide range of ordinary citizens in an effort to move public opinion farther along the learning curve toward more mature, considered opinions. For example, would the public be willing to pay more for energy if that were one of the state’s options for responding to climate change (an option presented with explanations)? One assumes that policymakers and the public could benefit from such a carefully planned dialogue.

Where Should You Aim Your Political Effort?

Suppose someone wants to be politically active in addressing climate change — where should he or she focus time and energy? One can work locally with a city, county, or one particular institution, or work to improve state-level policies, or focus on national climate efforts, or even work at the international level.

Psychology plays a role in making this decision. How much time is one willing to invest? How important is it to see change really happen (not just try hard to achieve change), and how quickly should the outcome of one’s efforts become known? Is working with a sizable group agreeable and, if so, must the group members be friends and neighbors or could they be strangers?

It is easier to affect local institutions, whether that means saving energy in a school or workplace, or developing policies and practices to reduce a town’s emissions of greenhouse gases. Most people will probably find it more satisfying to achieve a victory on a small scale than to fight to mitigate climate change in larger arenas where success is usually harder to achieve.

Nonetheless, a majority of Americans say that changing national policies “would do most to make a meaningful impact” on issues they care about. Unfortunately, the current gridlock in Washington, DC means that there will be few if any national climate change-related legislative victories to report in the next two years; many Republicans don’t believe that climate change is caused by human activity or, if they do accept the science, fear taking action lest they lose support from donors or voters.

For some people, states are viewed as just the right size for climate action, not too big and not too small (shades of the Goldilocks story). On the one hand, states can play a significant national role, as Massachusetts did when it became the first state to provide near-universal health care (“Romneycare”), providing a model for the rest of the U.S. On the other hand, most states are not politically gridlocked and thus more state policymakers may take significant climate actions than members of the U.S. Congress. As an example, the Governor of New York State recently banned the practice of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas (fracking), based on an assessment of the likely risks to human health.

These multiple perspectives on the pro’s and con’s of choosing a political target, combined with my own psychology, are leading me to work with groups in Massachusetts that want the state to more quickly rely on wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources instead of fossil fuels. Massachusetts is already a climate change leader in several ways. For example, New England has a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) that has been successful in reducing emissions; a Massachusetts state law (the Global Warming Solutions Act) requires electricity providers to increase the fraction of energy supplied each year from renewable sources; and Massachusetts uses less energy per capita than most states.

But there is much more to be done. The first state to implement a carbon tax or fee, or to obtain 50% or more of its electrical energy from renewable fuels, will demonstrate to other states what is possible, both politically and technically. Whether that is Massachusetts or another state is less important than that many states move quickly in the right direction.

A smaller number of people are politically active at any level of government than one would want. For example, fewer than 5% of Americans report they “very often” volunteer on political or issue campaigns, and only a little more than a third of eligible voters (36.4%) even voted in the 2014 elections. Americans are alienated from many large institutions, including government. How to restore Americans’ confidence that our democracy can solve serious problems is a subject for other blog posts. In any case, it is clear that there are opportunities to improve climate action policies at all political levels, and that focusing on one level does not preclude working on other levels, too.