Lessons from the Field: Talking About Fracking and Climate

As the debate heats up in New York and elsewhere about whether it’s advisable to allow fracking (horizontal hydraulic fracturing) to get at shale gas in the Marcellus Shale and other underground rock formations, we asked Climate Access members and other experts about how they are talking about fracking, their engagement strategies and what is and isn’t working. Here is what they had to say.

Holly Armstrong, Resource Media:

“The place to start in developing a message strategy for fracking – or any issue, for that matter — is to define what you are trying to accomplish. It makes no sense to dive straight into your message and talking points without a clear sense of your objectives and who is important in helping you achieve them. This is your audience, and you'll talk about the issue one way if you're trying to influence or pressure a decision from, say, water managers than you would if you were talking to a state oil and gas commission or a group of angry moms. Spend the time up front to define as clearly as possible what you're trying to do and who you're trying to reach, and it could save you a lot of wasted energy (no pun intended) in developing great messages that have no relevance to your targeted audiences.

Including a scientific basis for whatever issue you're talking about is smart but it can't be the sole basis for messages. Being able to tell a good story and creating a visceral connection to the facts you are talking about is far more important than simply lining up the facts themselves. If it was that easy, we'd have federal climate legislation, all our drinking water would be protected from fracking and we'd be much farther down the road of replacing fossil fuels with clean energy. Facts alone do not resonate with most people. There must be an emotional connection as well. You can use a killer fact or two, but those must support a more compelling story and hit on core values.  In talking about fracking, for example, protecting the climate might be your ultimate objective, but talking about the climate impacts of increased natural gas production doesn’t hit people where it matters. Talking about their drinking water does. If you're trying to change the dialog on fracking, you have to translate the issue into something the co-worker at the water cooler in the office or the mom talking to her friends is going to remember. One of the best places to start on fracking is to present the number of contamination cases or spills and make the point that, although we have no clear answers on what impact fracking has on water, it is not worth gambling on something so vital.

In addition to your message, it is equally important to consider the messengers. There is a tendency to have the smartest people in the room as the ones talking about an issue, and, to be certain, scientists and researchers generally rank very high in terms of authority and credibility. But remember, these are voices who are best suited to communicating factual information, and what we're trying to do is make a visceral connection with an audience, so we also have to have voices who can connect on a more personal, empathetic and emotional level. Depending on the audience you're trying to reach, examples of messengers who can help make that connection on fracking could be farmers, ranchers, brewers, small local businesses owners or operators, people raising kids, water managers. These all could be highly effective messengers on the issue of fracking.

Having a solution is another critical element of a good message. Too often, the folks working on the side of protecting things like water, family health, wildlife and sustainability get caught in the trap of simply opposing things like fracking. Just say no. NIMBY. Stop Fracking! Our experience and plenty of polling data, however, consistently show that people also want solutions, which means how we talk about issues needs to include solutions-oriented messaging.

Don’t repeat your opponent’s arguments. If they talk about so-called “clean” coal or “safe” fracking, don't waste your breath saying there's no such thing. Instead, hammer home the message that fracking is inherently dirty and dangerous. If they talk about how safe the drilling process is and that gas reservoirs are separated from water by thousands of feet, don't get bogged down in the technicalities of disproving their claims. Focus on the growing number of cases of contamination that are directly linked to fracking. Focus on the idea that accidents happen all the time, and the potential risks of these accidents include wrecking vital drinking water supplies. Just ask the folks in Dimock, Penn., or Pavilion, Wyo., or Dish, Texas. The other side has a lot more money, but they don’t have the facts on their side. When we can tie together those facts with compelling emotional stories, our chances of success increase dramatically.

We’re doing a good job of letting people know what fracking is. It's become an issue that gets national exposure. That said, a lot of the exposure has been directly related to people who don’t want it near their water supply. But there are also still a lot people who aren’t really sure what fracking is, especially if they live in a place where drilling is not happening. We have to do a better job reaching those people as well.

Don Duggan-Haas, Paleontological Research Institution:

Through a series of grant-funded initiatives (NSF 1016359, 1035078, Smith-Lever NYC-124481), the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) is working to nurture evidence-based understandings of Earth systems issues associated with both hydraulic fracturing and the larger energy system. We see the controversy surrounding the Marcellus Shale as a teachable moment – a great many people are suddenly interested in where their energy comes from. This provides an opportunity for nurturing understandings of not only the Marcellus, but also the broader energy system, and also the larger Earth system.

We believe that the Marcellus cannot be understood in isolation and are striving to not only provide evidence-based understanding with as little bias as possible (that is, we will not advocate for or against drilling in the Marcellus Shale), but also help our audiences to investigate deeper questions than the question many in the Ithaca-area are initially drawn to. Residents justifiably focus on the question: Is this bad for the environment? Without contextualization, the answer is invariably “yes.” A more appropriate context-dependent question might be, “Is this better or worse for the environment than what we are doing now, or might reasonably do in the near future, to meet our energy needs?”

A simple pre-assessment used in some of our programming asks participants to identify the two largest energy sources for electric generation in New York state. The most common answers by far are coal and hydro, which rank numbers four and three, respectively behind natural gas and nuclear which are essentially even in their shares of production for the last several years. By gently drawing attention to the fact that most of us don’t really have much of a sense where our energy comes from now, we have had some success in engaging in richer discussions that have, to some degree, shifted people away from their poles related to this polarizing issue.

Education regarding the Marcellus Shale serves as a case study for both developing outreach approaches for emergent energy issues and for how these issues relate to the teaching of other controversial topics. Our goal is to develop heuristic approaches that others can adapt to their community’s needs before polarization becomes entrenched. Strategies include networking formal and informal educators within communities to develop energy education programming.

We have also produced “The Marcellus Papers,” a series of pamphlets that provide an overview of various aspects of the science related to hydraulic fracturing and the Marcellus Shale, and we are working to define what it means to be Marcellus Shale literate, and also what is needed to be aneffective Marcellus Shale educator. There's No Such Thing as a Free Megawatt is a presentation (created with Prezi) that has been used to provide an overview of the Marcellus Shale and contextualize it in the changing energy system. 

 Our greatest challenge is helping people to shift from working to fortify their position to deepening their understandings of the related issues. In this work, we are finding recent work by Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) helpful as we strive to help people shift their mode of thinking in Kahneman’s terms from System 1 to System 2, and Joe Romm’s Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and LadyGaga, as we work to make the way we speak and write about these issues more understandable.    

Amanda C. Peterson, Alliance for Climate Education:

In the science assembly we provide to schools, we mention fracking, but don’t come out against it over and above the effects it has as a source of fossil fuel – hazardous to our climate, community health and air quality, evidence of which there is a large body of research. We discuss the pros and cons of fracking in the conversation we encourage students to have amongst themselves as part of a risk/reward analysis of different energy sources, within ACE Leadership Training. That’s the limit to ACE’s direct engagement in fracking.

However, ACE is focused on equipping young people with the education, tools, and platform they need to become effective community leaders. So while we do not drive an anti-fracking agenda, we support the leadership of students who live in communities that are negatively affected by fracking, providing guidance on how to conduct sound research, raise their voices and engage multiple stakeholders in their efforts.

For example: when there was a North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources Public Hearing on fracking held at a high school in our network, two of our star students were spurred into action. They rallied their fellow students to attend the hearing via social media. Natasha Anbalagan, our North Carolina Youth Rep, submitted a public statement to the record. Johanna DeGraffenreid, our local educator in the Raleigh area, helped Natasha edit her statement and make sure all her facts were well researched – but it was Natasha’s interest, Natasha’s ideas and Natasha’s drive that caused her to take action.

As the legislative story unfolded – first the measure allowing fracking passed, then was vetoed, then the veto was overridden – the students focused on every moment as a reflection of their efforts. We congratulated them at every step on what they already accomplished, reinforcing a longer view of their own leadership skills and power to drive change.

What have we seen work?

Be honest about the science that exists and don’t try to state the issue in black and white. Bring up both the pros and cons and let people make their own decision about the topic and what needs to be done. Listen to them as they observe the effect fracking has on their communities and communities like theirs. Support them in critical thinking, making their own decisions and finding their own voice as leaders.

What hasn’t worked?

Emphasizing a single vote. The North Carolina “yes/no/yes/no” had the potential to discourage these amazing climate leaders from continuing to drive change. We have to make sure that youth see that driving healthy, sustainable solutions to climate change is a marathon, not a sprint, and they should be proud of their successes.

Grace McRae, Sierra Club:

Unfortunately, we've found that when talking about fracking and natural gas, the climate frame isn't our most effective messaging frame. Polls show that we win the public's opinion when we use arguments about water quality impacts (especially drinking water). However, we do weave arguments about fracking's impact on carbon/climate into the larger message - especially when talking to our own membership (which is more climate-aware than the general public).

Gillian King, Thisness of a That:

How are you talking about fracking in your climate work?

1. When I give talks on behalf of Beyond Zero Emissions about their Stationary Energy Plan, I conclude by encouraging people to support the Repower Port Augusta campaign that advocates for Australia's first Concentrated Solar Thermal plant instead of a gas generator. I note that South Australia (the State where Port Augusta is) has only 13 years of conventional gas from its Cooper Basin reserves and after that gas would be piped from CSG wells in other States.

2. On my blog, Thisness of a That, I have done a few posts talking about different audiences and styles of communication. These included:

Stick to your knitting — focus on older women with the example of the 'Knitting Nannas' campaign of women visiting rural areas and farms that have been affected by CSG. They have a great FB page with a lively, authentic voice.

Climate Activism with Tattoos — focus on young, working men — triggered by Bill Clinton's recent comment. The post touches on gender-appropriate messaging.

Superhero costumes optional — focus on humour, individuality and authenticity.

What are your strategies for engaging your audience(s)?

Most people I have encountered are worried by fracking, especially in areas of good farmland. So I haven't had to persuade people that fracking is bad, instead I have been able to use fracking as something of a bogeyman to encourage support for alternatives like CST.

Where people express pro-gas or pro-fracking views, I point out that gas is a fossil fuel and 80% of currently known fossil fuel reserves will be stranded assets unless CCS becomes commercially viable. This is a new idea for most people in the general public.

Please share what has and hasn't been working for you thus far.

A major role of my blog is to give encouragement to other activists by circulating interesting ideas/metaphors along with some facts. The Transformation tab lists real-world policies and projects that are reducing carbon emissions. I think that people who are deeply engaged in debates with contrarians/deniers don't realise that lots of countries and businesses are getting on with the energy revolution. It's so easy to focus on the obstacles/idiocies (NC legislation about sea level rise; Romney's love of fossil fuel; Obama's silence; Congress rejection of EU carbon tax on airlines, etc, etc.). I leave that to others and try to focus on the wins wherever I see them. Of course I can't help but beat up on government from time to time for doing too little!

I get good feedback from other activists about the positive tone of my blog. It can be a welcome 'pick-me-up', especially for those who are feeling worn down by the challenge and worried by the prospects ahead. My Castle Walls are Breached metaphor seemed to resonate particularly well and the post was tweeted/recommended a lot. A powerful idea can energize the troops!

I think it helps those who are campaigning on one issue, like CSG, to feel the support of others in the wider family who have a different focus but a similar overarching direction. So, I have been intentional about giving explicit support to anti-fracking campaigns without straying from my core business.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user CREDO: Cuomo Policy Summit 8/22/2012

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