The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Armond Cohen of Clean Air Task Force
Over the past six and one-half years, we’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with a number of leading energy and environmental advocacy firms on topics as varied as renewable energy, energy efficiency, sustainable buildings and carbon capture. One of those groups is Clean Air Task Force.
Clean Air Task Force (CATF) was selected as a top global climate organization by the Founders Pledge, has been called one of “six of the most high-impact, cost-effective, evidence-based organizations” fighting climate change by Vox and earned a recommendation for their “proven track record” in US Policy Change by Giving Green. At the helm of this terrific organization is Armond Cohen. We’re delighted that he accepted our invitation to participate in the Common Sense Colloquy Q&A series.
Armond serves as CATF’s Executive Director, a role he’s had since the group’s founding in 1996. Armond leads studies on carbon-free energy and publishes articles on climate change, transformation of our energy system and air pollution. He has a particular expertise in advanced nuclear energy and serves as a Board Member of our client the Nuclear Innovation Alliance (NIA).
Previously, Armond founded and led the Conservation Law Foundation’s Energy Project. He is a member of the Keystone Center Energy Board and is former Chair of the Electric Power Research Institute Advisory Council. He is an honors graduate of Harvard Law School and Brown University.
I’ve had the opportunity to work with Armond as part of our NIA work and with his excellent team of colleagues as part of our work with the Carbon Capture Coalition. Given all of these connections, we figured it was time we included Armond in the Common Sense Colloquy series to provide an opportunity to highlight his leadership and the terrific work of his colleagues. We’re grateful to Armond for his willingness to share his thoughts and insight here as the 40th participant in our series.
My thanks to Armond for sharing his wisdom with us – and you.
Q: In your role as Founder and Executive Director of CATF for the past 25 years, you’ve witnessed the transformation of the nation’s energy system and numerous dramatic changes in the ways different audiences view climate change. What role do you believe communications has played in these changes? What’s needed to make sure we meet the challenges of the next 25 years?
A: All policy debates and social movements are mediated through communications, and the climate change and clean energy debate is a prime example. Starting with media coverage of James Hansen’s spectacular 1988 testimony before Congress, and then amplified by a series of widely covered scientific reports, the “greenhouse effect” became a ubiquitous term, on the lips of elite decisionmakers and the educated public, soon to be replaced by “global warming” and “climate change.” After the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, a global communications effort centered in NGOs, governments, and the scientific community further drove home the scientific evidence and the need for action. At the same time, very sophisticated communications-centered NGO campaigns were launched in the US, and then Europe, to push renewable energy, which have been quite successful in creating market uptake of wind and solar. Interestingly, as late as the early 1990s, in the US, climate change was a largely bipartisan issue, with Republicans like John McCain leading legislative efforts to reduce emissions. Unfortunately, the issue quickly became partisan and part of a national culture war, leading to the current startling partisan gap in the support for climate change policy. While whole institutes and at least a dozen major well-funded platforms, , are now devoted to “climate communications,” and there is favorable daily coverage in leading elite media, I fear we may have, at least in the US, reached the apex of support for climate action which, like COVID vaccination, has unfortunately become a cultural marker dividing the coasts and the heartland, to speak generally. The next challenge for actually solving the problem is to have both a substantive policy strategy and supportive communications strategy which respects the reality of economic, regional and cultural differences and can generate unity rather than further polarization.
Q: What do you wish policymakers understood about the technologies needed to ensure we meet our mid-century emissions reduction goals? How are you and your colleagues at CATF working to bolster that message?
A: Albert Einstein reportedly once said:” “Things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” The communications and advocacy around renewable energy has been simple, clear and spectacularly successful – to the point where every school child is being taught that wind and solar energy are real and good things, which is true. The problem is that these technologies have been potentially oversold as the 100% solution for everything – electric power, industry, transportation, and the building sector. The reality is unfortunately more complicated, as our recent literature review demonstrates. CATF, as well as a variety of academics, NGOs, and opinion leaders, are working hard to “complexify” this discussion by bringing forward evidence that a more diversified technology pathway – including carbon capture and nuclear energy – are likely to increase our chances of success. We are doing this by sponsoring and collaborating on peer-reviewed independent academic studies, whitepapers, bespoke modeling and testimony and extensive briefing of press and decision-makers. Note that the audiences here are largely elite – at most, the 2% of the public that follows the issues closely. The broader media is beginning to cover the issue more thoughtfully, but we have a long way to go.
Q: Are there communications lessons from your personal experience that you think could be relevant for others? Can you share a few things you’ve learned in your work that might be useful for others who are also interested in “catalyzing realistic solutions for climate change”?
A: My personal experience is that the more the climate solutions discussion can appeal to common sense, the more likely you will have a constructive conversation. One approach I have found useful is to cut through all the modeling studies and just engage people in the question of whether, in their personal or financial life, they would prefer only one option or several, to achieve their life goals – using an analogy like college applications, or managing your stock portfolio, or getting bids on a house renovation. That gets across the point that single-pathway bets tend to be unnecessarily risky, so it may be best to diversify and combine multiple options where possible. The analogy to energy and climate is obvious – are you willing to bet the planet that wind and solar will solve all of our problems? You might be right, but you might not be – and it may be too late when we do find out.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?
A: Nearly every “how-to” book on persuasion will tell you: Start with where people are, not where you expect them to be, and be respectful of different views. For a variety of reasons, climate change and energy has become a deeply polarizing issue, tied up with cultural identity. One has to start by understanding why someone may come to the discussion with a different perspective, not all of it fact-based, and try and understand how they might most likely be able to hear an alternative message. Being a left-brained lawyer-type, I admit I continually struggle to hew to this empathic approach.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?
A: Focus on the audiences that are reachable, and don’t waste time on folks who are deeply dug in. Also, and somewhat in contradiction to what I just said, despite all the recent scholarship around the power of culture in cognition, never give up on fact- and evidence-based arguments. There is no such thing as pure objectivity, and it is certainly out of intellectual fashion today, but striving for it is better than the alternative – which is just an endless tribal war of competing memes.