Thursday, October 8, 2020

Calm and Optimistic? Doomy and Urgent? City Chooses Former Framing on Climate

The City's rolling out a new "public engagement platform" for our Climate Action Plan. Part of the deal with the consultant writing the plan and running the process is apparently a contract for a third-party website and social media platform they will use to elicit (even extract) and process a great deal of public comment on climate and the plan.

Given what we know about the ways social media operates to polarize and distort personal opinion and aggregate public opinion, it's hard to be confident that this is a great idea. It's not obvious yet another social media platform will promote more thoughtful engagement rather than more intensely partisan sloganeering. Maybe at the end we'll conclude it's wonderful, but it might just be a boondoggular shiny tech gadget that further erodes privacy and fragments opportunities for public comment into smaller and smaller niche slices.

More interesting is the framing. The City has published a launch promo with decidedly non-urban scenery. We've already noted that Parks personnel are leading the project on the City side. So as far as first impressions go, it looks like the accent is going to be calm and optimistic, and on actions like planting more trees. It's about recreation and open space, and not so much about city blocks, the built landscape, and how we conduct our lives in it all.

Soothing, even bucolic framing on climate - via FB

But is this essentially anodyne framing adequate to the moment? 

It is at least possible that people will respond better and more deeply to calm and optimistic, so we shouldn't, I guess, rule this out of hand. People may need to see and feel what it is we are trying to care for. The ethic of caring is important as part of persuasion. We don't want people to tune out. Indeed, Willamette University Professor of Psychology Sue Koger has argued for something like this. Professor of Sociology Janet Lorenzen has analyzed "the relationship between lifestyle change and social movements" and "local climate governance." It would be interesting for the project team to discuss the problem of rhetoric and imagery more directly. Truly, what's the best messaging here? (And since we have this expertise on the faculty at WU - right here! - why isn't it more visible concretely at this very particular moment?)

Nurturing and caring imagery
in an academic paper
via WU Prof Sue Koger

Still, a great worry here is that we are already eliding the centrality of cars and driving in our emissions. A focus on small changes and bucolic images of parks may not underscore strongly enough changes that we need to make to our transportation system, to our habits in mobility, and to our land use and zoning. Our cars are especially problematic, and we should be centering that more.

Cars: this summer and last summer

A little bit of doom and urgency more generally might be helpful also.

"Merely bad or truly horrific"?
NY Times, Sept. 23, 2020

The City Manager last month published a list of invitations to the Climate Action Plan Task Force. There are a lot of business and industry types, and while getting their consent and hopefully some level of enthusiasm, not just pro forma "buy in," is necessary, the composition of the Task Force does not look like the project is being cued up for anything very aggressive or assertive. It looks very much like it risks being only very incremental, about "what is possible," and those industry and business types will have a lot of inertia behind what they will agree is "possible." The formal representative for transportation planning on the committee was an SRC booster. This looks like more slow-walk and box-check than commitment to substantial emissions reduction. On the plan website, there is too much talk about "adapting to climate change" and not enough about the emissions reductions themselves and reducing the magnitude of climate disruptions.

Task Force Members, City Manager

You may be more optimistic about all of this. But altogether the signs at the start of this process suggest a trajectory to an end product too small and too modest.

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