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The Challenge of Climate Change Messaging

Senior Lecturer Joe Blatt has assembled a cross-Harvard team to develop methods for turning climate change skeptics into green energy supporters after being awarded a Salata Institute grant
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In many parts of the world, the impacts of climate change are an unavoidable reality of everyday life. Action to combat its life-threatening effects in many places including the United States, however, remains mired in political infighting and misinformation. The gridlock of climate denial in the face of ever-greater consequences for communities has created opportunities to look outside of the traditional scientific community for ways to reach the public with accurate information about climate change.

To help confront these issues, Harvard’s Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability has established a new grant program that specifically seeks out proposals from researchers and educators without a climate background, in the hopes that new ideas and approaches can help develop a broader approach to combating climate change. Earlier this summer, Senior Lecturer Joe Blatt was awarded one of those grants.

Blatt, faculty co-chair of the Learning Design, Innovation, and Technology (LDIT) Program, has worked in children’s media and documentary development for decades. He’s worked extensively with Sesame Workshop and built an academic focus on the effects of media content and technology on development, learning, and civic behavior. Blatt says the urgency of the world’s climate crisis had already drawn his attention before the grant opportunity presented itself, and the persistence of climate change resistance, reinforced by misinformation and propaganda, made him realize his background could prove useful.

Blatt put together a cross-Harvard team to work on the project from a variety of perspectives and expertise, including Dustin Tingley, a department of government and Harvard Kennedy School professor whose book, Uncertain Futures, about resistance to climate crisis thinking was published earlier this year. Also involved is Mina Cikara, a Faculty of Arts and Sciences professor of psychology, who studies ways to overcome hostility between disparate groups; and Chan School of Public Health Professor Vish Viswanath, who Blatt describes as “deeply experienced in helping bring about large-scale behavior change with the public,” most notably in anti-smoking campaigns.

“You can see how those different skills converge,” says Blatt. “And our goal is to see if we can formulate and test some messages that would help actually reach people who are resistant to thinking about sustainability and alternate energy sources.”

Here, Blatt details his interest in climate change messaging and how he hopes his team can help develop more effective methods to mobilize broader public support.

The Salata Institute was specifically looking to give grants to educators who don’t specialize in climate science. Given your background in children’s media and television, you fit the bill. But what drew you to applying?

Sustainability and the climate crisis are pretty present concerns for my family. I have two children so I am very much focused on the world we are creating for them, and eager to take on something that would support sustainability and energy conversion.

As soon as I saw the Salata opportunity, it clicked that this could be a way I could both fulfill the desire to engage with the crisis, and also maybe more fruitfully apply the skills I have.

How did you approach applying for the grant?

Joe Blatt
Joe Blatt

I tried to learn as much as I could about what’s happening and, importantly, what’s not happening in climate change education. And it seemed to me a critical target would be people who ought to support sustainability and green energy in terms of self-interest and logical thinking, but who had been politicized to think differently. Could there be a way to engage with those folks, to help them come at the whole issue with fresh eyes?

I thought the answer could be “maybe,” but I need some colleagues who are more expert and more knowledgeable than I on how to do that. So I started reaching out to other faculty at Harvard and put together a team that I couldn’t be more excited about. Our goal is to see if we can formulate and test some messages that would help actually reach people who are resistant to thinking about climate.

Even acknowledging the existence of climate change and its impacts is often a politically loaded act. There are established biases to overcome and misinformation to combat with a project like this. Where do you even begin?

My belief is that there are people who have been persuaded that green energy is a threat to their livelihood and the climate crisis is not real, but could be persuaded otherwise if the facts reach them in credible and meaningful ways. The issue of credibility is really the focus of Dustin [Tingley]’s book, Uncertain Futures, where he points out one reason people may be skeptical is that, very often, they have experience with government putting forth some claim or promise and then not following through. So that’s one part.

But there’s also a larger propaganda effort by people whose interests are in fossil fuels and not changing current corporate commitments, people who have really pushed a line of thought that I think is wrong and can be successfully countered.

In a sense it’s going around these people who have made a campaign of denial, but it’s also trying to reach people who would probably consider themselves opponents now, but who are just regular people and we can hopefully talk to them in a meaningful way.

Communicating these important issues to young people, who often come to the conversation without as much bias, could certainly be a powerful tool if they’re engaged the right way. How does that level with the work you’ve done in other areas in the past?

That’s one of the strategies we’ll investigate in this project. It’s almost always the case that peer exchange is the most compelling manner of communicating anything. It’s not about getting people to listen to us, it’s about helping people who are thinking more openly to talk to their families and friends. How do we do that?

I’m thinking there might be a role for media of various kinds, maybe social media. There are interesting possibilities for local outlets like Next Door, very local social media. Or block parties. Maybe some role for technology, I’m not sure.

One fantasy I have is that maybe we could develop a low-cost augmented reality program that would enable people literally to see the difference between now and what could be if we move in the direction of green energy. There are also some intriguing interactive tools out there for examining at a very local level what climate change means for your area — what parts of your town would be underwater with sea level rise, things like that.

I think there are a lot of potential levers. Which ones and what to say around them and how to get them out is what we’re going to work on.

There’s often a nihilism or hopelessness that comes with the way we talk about climate change, because the problems are so big, and the impact individuals can make often seems so small. A project like this sounds very hopeful, at least in finding more productive paths for communicating with people about the issue.

People can get discouraged or feel cynical, that’s absolutely right. Ultimately, we do have to act politically to make a difference and approve major policy changes and commitments. But I bet that acting locally and on a smaller scale enables people to think more positively politically. You can’t necessarily overcome the political propaganda problem until you have people thinking about what climate change means for their job, their neighborhood. That’s the underlying strategy.

What does your background — which ranges from studying children’s programming like Sesame Street to research and other educational consulting — bring to a project that will focus on climate?

My arc, so to speak, has been about discovering how media can be a powerful source of learning. I started in news and public affairs, pivoted into documentaries, and eventually into more interactive media. Along the way, I realized that there are ways to get ideas to stick with people through those media. That led me to this concept I’ve been trying to develop and define of informal learning, which is learning outside of formal school systems, and how a combination of media and face-to-face experiences can really be a constructive learning platform. Especially about things that don’t easily fit the standard school curriculum.

That feels very on the nose for this. This is not a subject schools have a place for or expertise in. I envision a combination of media messages and face-to-face experiences, like block parties or get-togethers and back-to-school nights, all built on some understanding of what designs work to make effective informal learning materials. That’s the kind of thinking that I bring.

The grant is for just under a year of work. What do you realistically think you can create with a report in that amount of time?

The goal is to launch something and see if we can build on it. I do think that the Salata Institute was very smart not only to attract people who haven’t worked on climate already, but also to encourage cross-university engagements. I’ve never been involved in a project that had three other schools joining in, and I’m not sure anybody else here has, either. So that’s exciting and promising as well.

It’s the different expertise those colleagues bring but also the different networks they bring. We hope to benefit from the cross-school collaboration in a lot of ways.

Ideally, what does this project become for you? Do you expect this to be the start of a new area of interest?

In narrow terms, we will only get as far as developing some messages and lightly testing. I hope we get the opportunity, through further funding, to go beyond the initial project to do some substantive testing and, if we come up with something that works, to get broader dissemination.

I think there’s a natural convergence between education, psychology, government policy, and public health. And if this project demonstrates we can actually work together across those disciplines and across those schools, which could be a real contribution to how other good ideas at Harvard actually find their way into the world. It’s something I’ll be thinking about a lot as we do this.

We don’t know yet all the other things that will have to happen to deal with climate change. So, if the process we’re embarking on yields something useful, then it will demonstrate a way to design future projects to tackle the ever-expanding climate change challenge.


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