I’ve got some good news and some bad news.
The bad news is that water utility communications about climate change can get bogged down and even sidelined altogether by politics, probabilities, and unknowns. The good news is that new research shows that Americans view water utilities as a trusted source of information about local climate change impacts on water. This provides utilities a great opportunity to build support for their actions in response to vulnerabilities caused by climate change.
The Water Research Foundation (WRF) recently completed a project, Effective Climate Change Communication for Water Utilities (project #4381 – full report available to WRF subscribers online), which provides information and tools to help water utilities identify target audiences and to clarify their specific informational needs and messages about climate change that are most likely to resonate.
Most of the participating utilities reported that they are not currently engaged in a climate conversation because they are concerned it will trigger negative reactions.
As part of this research project, a national survey was conducted to identify public beliefs, attitudes, and actions regarding the link between community water and climate change. The results of the national survey on community water and climate change provide a key to addressing this perception. For example, the survey found that 71% of the American public views their water utility as a trusted source of information on the local impacts of climate change (compared to a 43% level of trust in local elected officials).
Even so, the 12 U.S. utilities that participated in this study were unanimous in feeling like they can’t talk freely about climate change because many individuals are dismissive of climate change, including some authority figures who do not believe that climate change is happening. Most of the participating utilities reported that they are not currently engaged in a climate conversation because they are concerned it will trigger negative reactions. While the research showed that such conversations do not typically incite negative reactions, the research also found that because climate change is complicated, very few people (including water professionals) understand why climate change will result in a change in the water cycle and extreme weather.
So what, specifically, should we talk about?
Despite these complicating factors, it is crucial for utilities to engage in an active dialogue around climate change with staff, key partners, and customers. The research conclusions were clear—it is better to talk about climate change than talk around it. When agencies try and talk around the issue, it annoys everyone. The people who believe in climate change are annoyed that you avoided the subject (although they may not express this), while those who are deniers know you are talking about it and are annoyed anyway.
So what, specifically, should we talk about? As part of the national survey, three messages were tested for effectiveness; a water cycle message (climate change impact on rainfall, snowfall, and evaporation patterns), extreme weather event message (climate change effect on severity of droughts, hurricanes, rainstorms, and heat waves), and separation message (talking about the fact that climate is changing, but not about the rest of the debate (e.g., is climate change caused by humans or natural cycles?).
The research demonstrated that all three messages provide significant increases in support for utility climate related actions. However, the extent of the support changes when you weigh the response by audience segments, which are based on people who have similar attitudes and policy choices about community water and climate change. (Advocates are 20% of the U.S. population, Supporters 44%, Skeptical Supporters 13%, Closed Wallets 12%, and Pessimists 11%—more information about these audiences and other results can be found in the WRF’s Advances in Water Research, pages 2-3 and 14-18). Therefore, it’s crucial to tailor your message based on your targeted audience.
This research showed that the majority of Americans are not dismissive of the concept of climate change. In fact, 92% of Americans support their community water provider in leading their community as they prepare for climate change. However, the small group of Americans who are dismissive are the most likely to show up at a water utility meeting. Therefore it’s critical and beneficial for utilities to face this issue straight on and engage more actively with their constituents around climate change and its impacts on water supplies.
Robert Renner is the Executive Director of the Water Research Foundation
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