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Is it possible to make environmental science relevant to society at-large?

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Abstract

Over the last five U.S. presidential election cycles, public concern about environmental issues has seemingly declined while concerns about national security and economic issues have remained steady or increased. These changes in public attitudes have been associated with decreased attention to environmental issues amongst policymakers, a situation that contrasts strongly with the 1970s when public concern about environmental issues was high and environmental legislation was a U.S. federal government priority. “Framing” has been proposed as a tool that environmental scientists could use to increase the relevancy of their research to U.S. society at-large, thereby helping to change public attitudes and influence policymaking. However, if done haphazardly, some framing efforts can actually have the opposite effect. To combat this weakness, environmental scientists should join with experts in psychology, decision science, and social science to create interdisciplinary teams that can effectively communicate with the public, positively affect public opinion, and make environmental science more relevant and meaningful to society at-large.
iee 10 (2017) 43
10: 4346, 2017
doi:10.4033/iee.2017.10.8.psi
© 2017 The Author. © Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 2017
Received 5 March 2017; Accepted 17 October 2017
Political and Social Issues
Is it possible to make environmental science relevant to society at-large?
Adam E. Rosenblatt
Adam E. Rosenblatt (adam.rosenblatt@unf.edu), University of North Florida, Biology Department, Jacksonville,
Florida, USA 32224
Abstract
Over the last five U.S. presidential election cycles,
public concern about environmental issues has seemingly
declined while concerns about national security and
economic issues have remained steady or increased.
These changes in public attitudes have been associated
with decreased attention to environmental issues amongst
policymakers, a situation that contrasts strongly with the
1970s when public concern about environmental issues
was high and environmental legislation was a U.S.
federal government priority. “Framing” has been pro-
posed as a tool that environmental scientists could use to
increase the relevancy of their research to U.S. society at-
large, thereby helping to change public attitudes and
influence policymaking. However, if done haphazardly,
some framing efforts can actually have the opposite
effect. To combat this weakness, environmental scientists
should join with experts in psychology, decision science,
and social science to create interdisciplinary teams that
can effectively communicate with the public, positively
affect public opinion, and make environmental science
more relevant and meaningful to society at-large.
Key words: climate change, economy, environment-
alism, framing, public policy.
Environmental science is objectively important to
humans because we rely on the physical, chemical, and
biological qualities of Earth’s environment for survival.
Through environmental science we learn about how
interconnected environmental systems work, how they
can affect us and other forms of life, and how we in turn
can affect the environment. Given our complete
dependence on the environment it would be natural to
assume that public policy agendas would mostly, if not
always, support both scientific research related to the
environment and domestic and international policies to
safeguard its overall health. However, recent political
developments at the national level in the U.S., including
the election of Donald Trump as president, his stated
intention to remove the U.S. from the Paris climate
agreement, and his push to discard environmental
regulations, have made it clear that this is not always the
case. Here I compare current prevailing public attitudes
about environmental issues in the U.S. to historical public
attitudes, discuss how environmental scientists may be
able to affect the current situation, and provide some
ideas for a path toward enhancing the relevancy of
environmental science to U.S. voters and public policy.
Over the past five presidential election cycles (2000-
2016), two core values have dominated the public con-
sciousness in the U.S.: national security and economic
vitality (Figure 1). In contrast, concerns about envir-
onmental issues appear to have somewhat receded into
the background (Figure 1). Along with other factors, this
shift in public opinion has allowed many politicians to
devote their energy to legislating economic and national
security issues, while environmental issues have received
less attention. For example, in President Trump’s first
budget outline he proposed cutting the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) workforce by 20% and the
EPA budget by 25% as part of a concerted effort to curtail
the implementation and enforcement of environmental
regulations (Eilperin and Dennis 2017). These proposed
actions have been cheered by supporters who claim they
ieeiee
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.
iee 10 (2017) 44
Figure 1. The percentage of
respondents to polling by Gallup
indicating that the economy (open
circles, dotted line), national security
(closed circles, solid line) or the
environment (triangles, dashed line)
are either “extremely important” or
“very important” issues across five
presidential election cycles.
Environment was not part of the poll
in 2012. Gallup did not use the exact
same terminology across each poll for
questions about national security or
the environment, so the national
security data also includes questions
about “national defense” (2000) and
“terrorism” (2004, 2008), while the
environment data also includes
questions about “climate change”
(2016).
will encourage economic growth and allow U.S.
businesses to thrive (Lipton and Appelbaum 2017) and
aligns with polling that shows 68% of potential voters
view the EPA unfavorably (Cama 2014). Importantly,
Mr. Trump’s Republican base is more strongly opposed
to environmental regulations than Democrats (Anderson
2017).
The recent lack of concern about environmental
protection in the U.S. stands in stark contrast to the
1970s, the period when environmental science saw the
greatest public policy successes. The 1970s brought
about the birth of the EPA and the creation of many
environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act,
Federal Environmental Pesticides Control Act, Coastal
Zone Management Act, National Forest Management
Act, Endangered Species Act, and Toxic Substances
Control Act, among many others (Schlosberg and Dryzek
2002). One of the main reasons for this flood of laws and
regulations was that polls suggested the environment was
the second most important issue to voters (Switzer 1998),
helping to spur policymakers into action.
Public concern for environmental issues actually
increased in the U.S. during the 1980s (Agnone 2007;
Daniels et al. 2012), but the environmental movement
stalled politically against concerns about energy security,
economic growth, and national security, fueled in part by
oil and gas industry lobbying (Schlosberg and Dryzek
2002). Passage of environmental legislation largely
continued to decline through the 1990s (Agnone 2007),
accompanied by growing polarization between Republic-
ans and Democrats on environmental issues into the 21st
century. The percentage of Democrats who said “the
country should do whatever it takes to protect the
environment” increased between 1994 and 2016, from
85% to 90%, while the percentage of Republicans who
held the same view decreased from 71% to 52%
(Anderson 2017). Conversely, the percentage of
Republicans who said “stricter environmental laws and
regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy”
increased between 1994 and 2016, from 39% to 58%,
while the percentage of Democrats who held the same
view decreased from 29% to 18% (Anderson 2017).
Current polarization amongst voters is similarly reflected
in politicians. In the 1960s and 1970s polarization
between conservative and liberal politicians was
relatively low, but since then the ideological distance
between the two groups has approximately doubled (Hare
et al. 2014). Indeed, according to some metrics political
polarization in Congress is more extreme now than at any
time since 1879 (Hare et al. 2014). This shift in ideology
and partisanship has undoubtedly made it more difficult
to pass any major legislation, let alone environmental
legislation.
Given the current state of affairs, it would seem logical
for environmental science to strive to re-align itself with
the core values of the society and state of which it is a
part. This is not to say that certain kinds of science or
scientific questions should only be pursued when the
cultural currents of society are favorable, but rather that
environmental science might benefit from being
appropriately contextualized. One popular idea for
accomplishing this feat is “framing,” a process whereby
environmental issues are explicitly presented within a
larger context, such as economic, national security, and
public health concerns, rather than as environmental
concerns alone (Nisbet 2009). Framing is a logical
iee 10 (2017) 45
strategy because theoretically it allows skeptical
members of the public to engage with an environmental
issue in ways that they find personally meaningful.
One potentially useful frame is economic vitality and
opportunity, a core U.S. societal value that cuts across
political party lines. Economic framing of environmental
issues has already been occurring with the push to
monetarily value “ecosystem services,” those functions
performed by ecosystems that humans rely on such as
food production, carbon sequestration, pollination, flood
protection, nutrient recycling, and pest control (Daily et
al. 1997). By quantifying this natural capital in economic
terms, advocates of the ecosystem services approach are
attempting to show policymakers and the public how
much money can be lost as the environment is degraded.
Efforts to understand and improve the valuation of
ecosystem services have been ongoing since the 1990s
(Daily 1997), and now natural capital is regularly
discussed across public and private sectors (Guerry et al.
2015). Though incorporation of the value of ecosystem
services into actual policymaking and business plans has
been slow, steady progress is being made (Guerry et al.
2015).
All science communication efforts are inherently
framed, either intentionally or unintentionally, because it
is impossible to entirely divorce a particular scientific
issue from the culture and society in which the issue
emerged. However, environmental scientists could be
more mindful about intentionally framing specific issues
to highlight particular narratives or drive public under-
standing in a desired direction. Such efforts, though, must
be carried out with forethought and caution as they can
sometimes produce unintended results. For example, in
one study people were asked to read news articles that
framed climate change as either an environmental, public
health, or national security issue and then describe their
emotional reactions to the content (Myers et al. 2012).
The results showed that the public health frame elicited
reactions suggesting support for climate change mit-
igation and adaptation, but the national security frame
made people angry and possibly even more opposed to
action on climate change than before. Additionally, word
choice, audience demographics, and the structure of the
communication technique are factors that always should
be taken into consideration. Research suggests that
Republican audiences react more negatively to the phrase
“global warming” than “climate change” (Schuldt et al.
2011), while presenting environmental information in the
context of broad cultural themes rather than individual
responsibility may promote more support for a specific
policy agenda and government action (Hart 2011).
It is also important to recognize that some people may
be resistant to framing or other environmental science
communication efforts because of “counter-framing,” or
organized efforts to subvert the legitimacy of scientific
research. In one study, climate change action was
positively framed in terms of economic opportunity,
national security, Christian stewardship, or public health,
but a climate change denial counter-frame was presented
to subjects as well (McCright et al. 2016). The results
showed that counter-framing reduced acceptance of the
reality of climate change for a portion of the participants,
likely because of their established political ideologies.
This result makes sense in light of theory regarding
framing within competitive environments, which predicts
that ingrained beliefs and attitudes will weaken the
effects of framing efforts (Chong and Druckman 2007).
Overcoming entrenched negative views about
environmental action that are reinforced by cultural,
ideological, and economic forces (Bernauer and McGrath
2016) will be difficult, and not every environmental
scientist may want to take on such a task or even agree
on appropriate policy priorities. However, for those who
do want to take action it appears that framing will be a
crucial tool. Such efforts will require presenting
knowledge produced by environmental science to
different sectors of the public in a variety of thoughtfully
developed frames that are tailored to those specific
audiences, each with their own unique values, concerns,
and culture. At the same time, environmental science
communication efforts cannot become so myopic that
current scientific knowledge is presented as absolute
certainty (Donner 2017); such efforts would be dishonest
regarding the complexity of the scientific process and the
plasticity of scientific concepts. This can be a daunting
balancing act for individual environmental scientists to
accomplish on their own; instead, teams of researchers
from different backgrounds and with various areas of
expertise (e.g., environmental scientists, psychologists,
decision scientists, social scientists) should come
together to craft appropriate and effective commun-
ication strategies that will reach target audiences and lead
to measurable attitude changes on the environmental
issue of interest (Fischhoff 2007). Such teams have
proven to be effective in the recent past (e.g., Grorud-
Colvert et al. 2010), but it is important to recognize that
there is no universal template for building these teams,
and that making environmental science relevant to
society at-large requires an understanding that every
audience is indeed unique (Grorud-Colvert et al. 2010).
It would also be wise not to forget the power of message
repetition. Frank Luntz, a conservative political consult-
ant, stated in 2003: “There’s a simple rule: You say it
again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you
say it again, and you say it again, and then again and
again and again and again, and about the time that you’re
absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your
target audience has heard it for the first time” (Donner
2017). This axiom is itself supported by framing theory,
which predicts that constant exposure to a particular
frame will increase message accessibility within the
minds of the target audience (Chong and Druckman
iee 10 (2017) 46
2007). The results of these efforts might not be
immediately apparent, but sustained communication
across a variety of platforms and audience-specific
frames may be the best hope for increasing the relevancy
of environmental science to the public and influencing
policy agendas in specific ways.
Referees
Edward Maibach emaibach@gmu.edu
George Mason University Center for Climate Change
Communication
Simon Donner simon.donner@ubc.ca
University of British Columbia
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