Q&A with UCS President Kevin Knobloch On Climate Science, Policy, Communications


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UCS President
Kevin Knobloch

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. – After eight years of battling the Bush administration to preserve the integrity of science and inform public policy on environmental and nuclear issues, Union of Concerned Scientists President Kevin Knobloch is not taking a rest. Instead, he’s amplifying efforts to communicate about climate change action, especially in the upcoming legislative effort.

Lisa Palmer caught up with Knobloch at UCS headquarters recently for The Yale Forum to talk about climate, the economy, and getting scientists to understand the media.

Palmer: What are the ways in which the Union of Concerned Scientists communicates with the public about climate change?

Knobloch: We have six programs at UCS. Climate change is our largest program. We have a separate clean vehicles program and clean energy program, which means climate change is more than half of our organization, and it’s our organizational priority.

Our climate impact studies have been key to helping us translate the latest climate science for decision makers and the public. We have developed climate impact studies for California, the Gulf states, the Great Lakes states, Pennsylvania, and the Northeast. The whole point of these studies is to educate people to the changes in climate to date. People were observing changes anecdotally but didn’t have any empirical way that they could confirm that they were related to climate change. For the Northeast, we had about 50 scientists and experts from key institutions in the region contribute to the reports.

Palmer: As a 501c3 nonprofit, your organization must face particular constraints on lobbying.

Knobloch: We are not a lobbying group, but we don’t skirt it. As a 501c3, we have a 20 percent cap on our budget for overall lobbying, and we go right up to the allowable limits. Every one of my programs has a lobbyist, but I call them public interest advocates. They are always the Davids to the Goliaths of industry, in terms of bodies, money, advertising. We are very successful despite those odds because we start with a rigorous scientific analysis of the problem.

Palmer: What challenges have you observed in the phrasing of climate science?

Knobloch: I was talking to someone about how the rain forest nations have stepped forward and said we are willing to be part of this international treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. I was talking about the global value of keeping those tropical forests because they are the lungs of the planet. But the scientist didn’t like me using that metaphor because lungs of a planet means breathe in, or respiration, [AND] trees have photosynthesis and are creating oxygen rather than consuming it.

We have to find metaphors and phrasing to help people get their heads around this global warming problem, but the phrasing needs to be accurate.

We work closely with the national environmental community to make sure we don’t overstate the science of climate change. We often hear advocates say phrases like “the science demands that we have to reduce greenhouse gas by x percent.” Well, the science isn’t demanding anything. The science is informing and we need to extrapolate policy from there, but the last thing we want to do is overstate the science.

Palmer: How does UCS see its responsibilities with the next round of climate legislation?

Knobloch: I am testifying before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Chairmen Waxman and Markey have written some terrific comprehensive climate legislation, and that will be the first fight. But we are not going to win this. And the real challenge is the opposition, which is from states that mine a lot of coal. A state like Minnesota has 95 percent of its power generation from coal; Ohio has 80 percent. These are states that are deeply worried about the cap on carbon, because they have no other options at the moment.

Just watching the forces of opposition gather against the Obama agenda is really interesting. People are saying it’s going to wreck the economy, and so we have to be very adept at saying, we tried your business plan and your business plan ran the domestic auto companies into the ground. We tried your business plan of reliance on fossil fuels, and we are still battling soot and smog and high mercury levels and mountaintop removal.

We rely on 70 percent of our oil from countries that don’t like us. Now let’s try an aggressive remaking of the economy to be far more efficient in every sector. Let’s quadruple the efficiency of our appliances, let’s triple the efficiency of our vehicles.

We also need much more economic analysis. Economists jokingly refer to themselves as the dark science, but we really need that analysis to help with the short-term targets. We have hired three new Ph.D. economists to our staff. We need to analyze how deeply we need to reduce, yet make it most affordable, and, particularly in regions in the country I was describing earlier, how do we navigate this to bolster regional economies?

Palmer: How has the current economic recession affected UCS fundraising?

Knobloch: It is tough. We grew rapidly and tripled in size since 2000, when I came back to the organization. But even with this recession and the crisis in the economy, our donors are fantastically loyal to us. We have always had a strong membership of engineers and medical professionals, but a relatively smaller membership of the science and technical people, until we launched our scientific integrity work, which was in reaction to political appointees in the Bush administration censoring science.

Many in the science community who didn’t think UCS had any value to their lives started coming to us because people were so upset by that political abuse of science. That was treacherous terrain for us. We were pulling on the tail of a tiger. But we were the right group to take that on, and we spotlighted those abuses. So a lot of scientists suddenly noticed that maybe UCS is for me.

Palmer: Are you seeing shrinkage in membership now that there is a new administration that appears to embrace science?

Knobloch: Yes, that’s implied. When the Clinton-Gore administration came in, our membership fell off sharply. Many of our progressive supporters assumed that with a progressive administration everything would be taken care of.

Those years were ultimately disappointing. In truth, the inverse needs to happen. Throughout history, there are narrow windows of opportunity. Typically it’s in the first two years of an administration … We worked hard to pry this window of opportunity open, and now is the time to be firing on all pistons. And as evidence of that, my analysts and lobbyists are in massive demand. They are overwhelmed. So it is the worst time to trim back support on something like UCS. We are accustomed to lower expectations and to be on the defensive, but we are not as accustomed to being on a positive or affirmative agenda.

Palmer: How do you think scientists can improve on their communications with the media?

Knobloch: Scientists aren’t always knowledgeable about how journalists do their craft. Scientists often disdain the idea of a sound bite, or a bumper sticker slogan. That is because a lot of science is not simply described.

But there are some simple things that scientists can do to ensure they are understood. Sometimes scientists have a bad experience, and spend an hour explaining a complex topic to a journalist, and then what they see as reported as their quote is disappointing to them. We have educated them about how to put yourself in the reader’s shoes. We tell scientists to spend some time boiling it down in a way that the reader can understand or relate to the science. So there is a lot of room for scientists to improve.

Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a Maryland-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: lisa@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @Lisa_Palmer)
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One Response to Q&A with UCS President Kevin Knobloch On Climate Science, Policy, Communications

  1. Ingrid Wild Kleckner says:

    Good interview.P’s Q re the “phrasing of climate science” links w/K’s rendering of how scientists/journalists sh/c/ould communicate. Coal mining-Minnesota & Ohio-too many states w/ failing industries-what can we substitute?/ New ideas like diminishing sun rays-don’t we humans need sun exposure for our well-being?What is the answer?But pl.,UCS, don’t give up or in-we have a long way to go.So thank you, Ingrid Wild Kleckner