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date: 21 January 2020

Communicating about Climate Change with Policymakers

Summary and Keywords

Policy communication and the resulting influence that information has on policy decision-makers is an especially pertinent topic when it comes to problems of climate change. Notorious for its complexity, uncertainty, and divergence of viewpoints, climate change has earned the title of being the major “wicked” or “super-wicked” problem of our times. A proliferation of expertise, interests, and capacities mark the climate change policymaking landscape and this density of players warrants an advanced framework to understand the ways in which the variety of climate-pertinent knowledge is communicated to policymakers. Moving beyond undifferentiated “two-communities” models of knowledge utilization in policymaking which limit the discussion to the bilateral interactions between knowledge experts or “producers” and information “consumers” of the public sector, this article explores the concept of a policy advisory system, which embodies the different sets of influence that various policy actors can have during policy decision-making and how communication between and among actors is a significant aspect of climate change policymaking. The concept of policy advisory systems is an important new development in the policy studies literature and one that is analytically very applicable to climate policy contexts. Suitably generalizable across representative policy settings, policy advisory systems are comprised of distinct groups of actors who are engaged in the definition of policy problems, the articulation of policy solutions, or the matching of policy problems to solutions. We explore how individual members of these separate sets of actors—namely the epistemic community, which is occupied in discourses about policy problems; the instrument constituencies which define policy instruments; and the advocacy coalitions which compete to have their choice of policy alternatives adopted—interact and communicate with policymakers across climate change policy activities.

Keywords: policy advisory systems, climate change policy, epistemic communities, instrument constituencies, advocacy coalitions

Introduction: Actors and Communication in Climate Change Policymaking

Governments seeking to address climate change priorities are heavily impacted by the interplay of the particular communication styles and strategies that these policy actors employ, by which some issues are brought to the forefront of policy deliberations while others are not. A key question in policy-making is “what makes people in and around government attend, at any given time, to some subject and not to others?” (Kingdon, 2011, p. 1).

When defining and devising policy responses to the multifarious environmental and social challenges posed by climate change, policy actors who are engaged with different aspects of this dilemma—such as the gravity of the problem, or the feasibility and effectiveness of the solutions, or its politics—find themselves in constant interaction through the course of absorbing knowledge about climate change, framing problems into policy goals, and devising instruments to meet these goals.

In understanding agency in this policymaking process, classic theories of the policy process have assumed a singular cohesive set of actors—or a “subsystem”—bound together by a common interest, to be the basic unit of analysis. Communication among the members of the subsystem was traditionally assumed to be focused on establishing the basic structure of a problem and its solution and in this sense to be relatively uniform and unproblematic (Howlett, Ramesh, & Perl, 2009; Kingdon, 2011).

This approach initially fueled an understanding of aforementioned “insider–outside” or “two-communities” models of science–policy communication that envisioned a divide between a community of knowledge “producers” who occupied universities, think tanks, research institutes and statistical agencies, and a community of “consumers” dwelling in political institutions like legislatures, parliaments. and government administration agencies (Dunn, 1980; Newman, 2014; Ward, House, & Hamer, 2009; Williams, 2002). Concepts such as Pielke’s “honest broker” also emerged, in parallel, highlighting the scientists’ own “effort to expand (or at least to clarify) the scope of choice for decision-making in a way that allows for the decision-maker to reduce choice based on his or her own preference and values” (2007, p. 2). However, simply a greater degree of contact between scientists and policymakers may not be sufficient to lead to the effective translation of knowledge into practical policies (Caplan, 1979).

In recent years closer inspection of policy formulation activities, especially in complex environmental policy arenas such as climate change, has revealed that the ebb and flow of ideas gaining government attention is heavily dependent on the actions and interactions of not one, but rather several identifiable groups of actors involved in defining problems, articulating solutions to them, and gaining and retaining political support for specific matches of problems and solutions (Béland & Howlett, 2015; Mukherjee & Howlett, 2015).

For example, in Britain prior to 1988, climate change and the greenhouse gas effect were a subject of discussion in predominantly scientific communities with scant coverage by the press and popular media. However, it quickly transformed into an urgent policy issue once the dominant political party was able to present it as being a global threat, one that called for individual and political responsibility and that warranted support for favored policies such as those enhancing investments in nuclear energy (Carvalho, 2005). This was also the case in Western Europe as well as Australia during the late 1980s and early 1990s (Bulkeley, 2000; O’Riordan & Jager, 1996).

Thus, to understand how different styles of communication employed by different policy actors can impact policymakers, it becomes important to ask “about precisely who is involved in defining and selecting one or more solutions over any other, for defining a problem in a particular fashion or for putting together definitions and proposed solutions” (Mukherjee & Howlett, 2015, p. 66).

In policy studies, progress has been made on this front by viewing different groups and individuals involved in policy formulation as constituting a “policy advisory system,” providing the body of knowledge and opinion that is available for governments to use in their policymaking decisions (Craft & Howlett, 2013a,b). Advice systems are said to “arise in almost every instance of decision-making whereby governments receive advice not just from professional analysts in their employ or from outside groups, but also from a range of other actors from think tanks and lobbyists, partisan political advisors, scientific, technical and legal experts and many others both inside and outside of government” (Craft & Howlett, 2013b, p. 187).

Studies of such advice systems have brought to light the origins and nature of these different groups within the policy subsystem. In particular they have identified different strategies and modes of communication that actors employ as they engage in defining the policy problem at hand, articulating particular solutions, or advocating for favored problem-solution pairings (Mukherjee & Howlett, 2015). Climate change policy presents a rich area of research to explore these various groups that make up a policy advisory system. Much has been said about strategies that have been employed for communicating the science of climate change (Bolsen, Druckman, & Cook, 2015; Druckman, 2015), the use of information by governments pointedly to shape climate policy instruments (Grundmann, 2007), and representing the politics of climate change (Carvalho, 2005). Drawing on these works and others, this article begins an exploration of policy advisory systems in the arena of climate change policy by focusing on communication strategies that advisory groups employ to influence the policymaking process.

This discussion proceeds in three parts. The next section uses examples from the climate policy experience in different countries and jurisdictions to examine the nature of policy subsystems and identify three specific subgroupings of actors within these systems who engage with each other in the policymaking process. The following section then focuses specifically on the unique behaviors and modes of communication that each group develops in its role as advisor to government decision-makers in climate change policy. The concluding discussion section summarizes the main lessons about areas of future policy research concerning policy communication.

The Nature of Influence in Policymaking: Policy Advisory Systems

Policy communication and the resulting influence that information has on policy decision-makers is an especially pertinent topic when it comes to problems such as climate change, which are notorious for their complexity, uncertainty, and divergence of viewpoints, characteristics that have earned it the title of a major “wicked” or “super-wicked” problem of our times (Head, 2008; Levin, Cashore, Bernstein, & Auld, 2007, 2012). Although much of the theoretical literature of public policy has concentrated on the study of the role and impact of formal institutional mechanisms and interactions between state and non-governmental actors such as lobbyists, government, and interest groups (Howlett, Ramesh, & Perl, 2009; McCool, 1998), the idea that these actors form a distinct “subsystem,” with stable membership, has helped move the field beyond the analysis of formal processes and procedures of government to engage with the politics of policy deliberation more directly.

The discussion of subsystems was initially developed through an examination of domestic policy arenas, predominantly in the United States, but the experience with global policy sectors such as the environment has extended this concept internationally. Litfin (2000), for instance, in his exposition of globalization and Canadian climate policy has shown the distinctions between national and international subsystems have become increasingly blurred. As witnessed through the stable and continuous participation by various groups at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Conference of Parties (COP) process represents a distinct subsystem that unites government representatives from various ministries as well as non-state organized interests such as “think tanks, economic groups, advocacy organizations and universities” with the idea that “the pooling of knowledge from these experts can help to make policy more comprehensive and presumably more effective” (Orr, 2006, pp. 148, 152).

The subsystem concept has helped to identify and order the variety of actors engaged in climate change policy formulation activities in which informal relationships are often just as significant as—if not more significant than—formal interactions in affecting subsequent government policy activity and outcomes. In relation to policy decisions on climate change, for example, at UNFCCC COPs, formal relationships include the relaying of scientific information during negotiation rounds. Informal interactions between government delegates and organized interest groups can take place “in hotel lobbies, on the UN bus shuttles, on sightseeing excursions, in restaurants, over lunch, during side events where research is presented, during quite periods and so on. For example, in Australia and in most countries of western Europe, the discussion of climate change in the early years was confined to the scientific community, but the variety of actors that have been involved in domestic climate policy since the 1980s has skyrocketed, as the issue has garnered a wide array of interests from federal bureaucracies, state and local governments, and various economic and environmental interest groups (Bulkeley, 2000, p. 736). These interactions can be important in developing relationships and becoming known to delegates and are a way for organized interests to develop an inside track to other delegates” (Orr, 2006, p. 160).

This view focuses attention on the main actors in a policymaking process, how they are united, what mechanisms they use to engage with each other, and what the effect of their interaction on policy outcomes is (Howlett et al., 2009). However, once a topic such as global warming is mobilized beyond the public sphere and elevated into being formally considered by the government, an undifferentiated concept such as the subsystem becomes less useful in helping to understand more closed activities taking place among decision-makers (Howlett, McConnell, & Perl, 2015).

Communication Between Policy Actors: Beyond Insider–Outsider Models

The existing policy studies literature has a long-established focus on how specific groups of advisory actors communicate with and influence policymakers (Wilson, 2006). A frequent distinction made between different types of advisory system members is whether they are “external” or “internal” to government processes (Craft & Howlett, 2012, 2013b), with considerations of communication strategies and influence linked to which location is occupied by which group. As set out by Halligan in 1995, for example, the concept of policy advisory systems first focused on how some actors internal to the government (such as senior departmental advisors, central agency advisors, or strategic policy units) were able to influence policymaking more readily than those external to government control (private sector or nongovernmental organizations [NGOs] and interest groups) (Halligan, 1995).

However, the dichotomy of the insider–outsider depiction of policy advice has been increasingly challenged in the recent years as participatory efforts to include commissions, consultants, and public opinion in policy processes have meant a distinct “externalization” of policy advice (Bevir & Rhodes, 2001; Bevir, Rhodes, & Weller, 2003; Dobuzinskis, Howlett, & Laycock, 2007; Eichbaum & Shaw, 2007; Howlett & Lundquist, 2004).

Powerful NGO coalitions, for example, have been noted to have been instrumental intermediaries during climate negotiations, and especially those dealing with the equity of climate mitigation activity between countries of the Global North and South. “Insiders” such as “30 Western NGOs, policy institutes and think tanks have begun to more aggressively push for some remuneration of the ‘ecological debt’” (Parks & Roberts, 2010, p. 150) leading up to the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) seminal 2007 Human Development Report (HDR), supporting steeper emission cuts for affluent countries and a “repayment” of the ecological debt through support to low-carbon development transitions in the Global South (UNDP, 2007). Parks and Roberts (2010) for example have shown how the lead director of the team behind the 2007 HDR was notably an “insider at UNDP … [and] imported some of the key ideas promoted by outside groups interested in social and environmental justice” (Parks & Roberts, 2010, p. 151).

The current state of knowledge on policy advice and advisory systems thus recognizes a wide constellation of policy actors, beyond just intra-government experts, who communicate about policy matters to decision-makers. However, these studies often do not examine carefully enough the communication strategies they may collectively employ to extend their advice to policymakers. As pointed out by Craft and Wilder (2015), while mainstream approaches to policy advice draw only a very general distinction based on where the advice is supplied (whether within or outside the government), “it is time to move to a ‘second wave’ of advisory system studies that views this boundary as blurred.”

Climate Change Policy Advisory System Constituents: Epistemic Communities, Instrument Constituencies, and Advocacy Coalitions

Given the prevalence of collaboration and coordination among the state, market actors, and civil society in contemporary governance, a framework that goes beyond the inside–outside dichotomy and degrees of government “control” over supply, promises more theoretical and empirical leverage (Craft & Wilder, 2015, p. 2). Climate change constitutes a policy arena that echoes the need for such a framework. As reflected in a seminal 20-year meta-analysis of climate change communication by Moser (2016), information and knowledge flows within the climate policy subsystem indicate that sources of knowledge about this problem are distributed across sectors and disciplines, vary in academic visibility, and have become highly interdisciplinary.

In order to more systematically examine the choices that different policy actors make in transmitting information about climate change to policymakers, it is necessary to identify how these actors are united either by their activities related to defining policy problems, or by their common commitment to particular policy solutions, or by the activism in forwarding their mutually preferred policies. That is, the responsibility for the range of tasks that are entailed in articulating policy goals, formulating and advocating for certain means to achieve these goals and eventually choosing among them, falls on different agents in the policymaking process—from knowledge area experts involved in the first instance, to specialists on policy tools in the second, to authoritative decision-makers and their associates, in the third (Howlett et al., 2009).

The first such grouping is the epistemic community, a term that has emerged from the international relations literature to define collections of scientists involved in defining and delimiting problem areas in topics of study such as oceans policy and climate change (Gough & Shackley, 2001; Haas, 1997, 1992; Zito, 2001). This term is used more generally to describe the group of actors who are involved in defining aspects of policy problems for policy decision-makers.

This set of actors is different from those found in instrument constituencies, a concept used in comparative policy studies to define actors exclusively involved in the articulation of policy solutions, often independently of the nature of the problem to be addressed (Béland & Howlett, 2015; Voß & Simons, 2014). These constituencies support specific instruments or instrument mixes which can address a variety of problem areas. The debate between the benefits of employing a carbon tax (e.g., Cooper, 2010; Nordhaus 2007, 2013) versus those of a cap-and-trade system for regulating emissions is an example of two instruments that have garnered the support of policy constituencies favoring either an internationally harmonized price for carbon or the distribution of tradable emission permits (Goulder & Schein, 2013; Weitzman, 2015).

The third, political aspect of influencing policymaking is captured by advocacy or political coalitions, a concept used by many scholars of American policymaking to assess the nature of the politics of the policy process. Coalitions are said to be involved in the political tussles that result when policy instruments are mapped onto problem definitions and vice versa (Sabatier & Weible, 2007; Schlager & Blomquist, 1996). With over 80 applications over the last two decades, the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) has been applied across a vast array of substantive areas and jurisdictions (Weible, Sabatier, & McQueen, 2009), including to several international contexts to explore the politics of the discourse surrounding climate change policy.

In the Australian climate policy network, for example, two contesting coalitions have been shown to exist: one that is oriented toward energy and resource extraction interests uniting large industries, business councils, trade unions, and relevant state departments and another “greenhouse action” coalition comprising governmental committees on ecologically sustainable development, state and local environmental departments, scientific centers, environmental groups, and industries concerned with renewable energy, energy efficiency, and nuclear energy (Bulkeley, 2000). These opposing groups of actors compete with each other to get their preferred problem frames as well as solutions chosen by policy decision-makers during the policy process and engage in deliberations and communications strategies designed or expected to allow their preferred options to emerge from this process.

Communications Strategies Among Groups

Using this three-part depiction of separate policy actor groups allows us to see, among other things, that it may well be the norm that communicating policy solutions often occurs before problems are formally defined (Béland & Howlett, 2015). Splitting the policymaking process into these three distinct groups of actors shows how discussions of policy tools and preferences, such as emission reduction targets and renewable energy standards, can take place separately from the considerations of the seriousness of the problem in terms of carbon dioxide and temperature threshold scenarios, or relative to political contexts defined by electoral turn over or political destabilizations (Moser, 2016). In other words,

within the policy subsystem of actors defining a particular policy arena (for example, national climate mitigation policy), an epistemic community surrounding climate change issues works towards defining the nature of the problem government must address, working independently of constituencies that have developed around particular instruments (for example, those favouring emissions trading), and coalitions of actors holding a variety of beliefs regarding factors such as the legitimate role of government in society or the degree to which public opinion will support certain definitions and courses of action.

(Mukherjee & Howlett, 2015, p. 69)

Whether a problem like climate change receives immediate policy attention can be linked with how it is being framed in policy deliberations. Not all problems can be defined as processable policy goals (Stone, 1988). Similarly, policy problems that are not communicated as having ready and practicable solutions may also fall by the wayside as governments focus on other more feasible policy deliverables.

Furthermore, a constant political struggle to ensure that preferred policy problems and solutions make it to the government’s decision making stage is also dependent on factors such as the resource endowments of policy advocates and the timing of various initiatives. Exploring these dynamics through a policy advisory system perspective allows for comparative conclusions to be drawn about the patterns of problem, policy, and political developments that can unfold through the interactions of multiple policy streams of events (Pralle, 2009).

Communication Styles within the Climate Change Policy Advisory System

Disaggregating the subsystem into its problem-, policy-, or politics-oriented components also allows us to see how members of these communities, constituencies and coalitions communicate and transfer knowledge and information with each other in taking part in the activities of policy advisory systems surrounding decision-makers. Looking more closely at climate change policymaking, with its broad application across sectors, for example, allows us to see in more detail how this process unfolds and what strategies are used by each group of actors (Ingold, 2011; Levin et al., 2012; Orr, 2006; Pralle, 2009).

Epistemic Communities and the Problem Stream of Climate Change

Thus, problem “experts” in epistemic communities are involved in discussing and developing ideas about the origins and causal structure of the situations that comprise such problems (Cross, 2015; Hajer, 1997, 2005; Howlett et al., 2009). In this situation, “knowledge regarding a policy problem is the ‘glue’ that unites actors within an epistemic community, differentiating it from those actors involved in political negotiations and practices around policy goals and solutions as well as those, discussed below, who specialize in the development, design and articulation of policy tools or solutions” (Mukherjee & Howlett, 2015, p. 69).

The academic work surrounding epistemic communities till now has been led by studies of environmental and climate change policy, and deal with topics of research connecting scientific findings and policymaking. Haas described the “epistemic communities” involved in deliberations in this sector as a diverse collection of policy actors including scientists, academics experts, public sector officials, and other government agents who are united by a common interest in or a shared interpretation of the science behind an environmental dilemma (Gough & Shackley, 2001; Haas, 1992). These groups seek to influence “policy innovation not only through their ability to frame issues and define state interests but also through their influence on the setting of standards and the development of regulations” (Adler & Haas, 1992, p. 378).

Adler and Haas (1992) outlined four mechanisms that epistemic communities use to communicate and impact policymaking. Initially, through a process of policy innovation, issues get defined and framed as policy problems. Next, through policy diffusion, members of the community disseminate information relevant to the policy problem through the use of reports, international forums, multi-stakeholder seminars, and workshops and other venues. Third, policymakers seek out select epistemic communities for support. Fourth, the epistemic community perpetuates its legitimacy and credibility as an authoritative source of policy-relevant knowledge.

Echoing this dialogue between scientific and policymaking communities, Murray Rudd (2014, 2015), through his extensive review of climate-sensitive ocean science and its impact on policy, finds that epistemic community members often are found functioning at the interface of science and policy and emphasizes the two-way dialogue between scientists and government decision-makers that occurs at this boundary. For example, opinions of epistemic community members or “collaborative science communicators” in his study of the role of scientific evidence in the process of developing effective ocean policy emphasized how “it is beholden on scientists to communicate their science, its uncertainties, outcomes, predictions to their peers and the wider public and policy makers. It is beholden on policy makers to listen objectively and use evidence in formulating and implementing policy” (Rudd, 2015, p. 55).

The strategies to communicate new evidence to corroborate the framing and statement of the climate change problem usually involves knowledge construction and research exposition on the part of the epistemic community. A separation from the political in favor of the epistemic defines the distinction between epistemic communities and other coalitions that are instead built on advocacy. For example, many NGOs working and/or lobbying on climate change issues aligned themselves with the UNFCCC and the objectives Kyoto Protocol in the early 2000s, leading to many NGO representatives becoming “highly expert in issues of climate change policy and science, and as such they have contributed their expert judgement, somewhat separately from their political judgement as an NGO” (Gough & Shackley, 2001, p. 331).

This activity involves the production of research papers by the scientific community and “the respectability of these publications depends on the credibility and apparent neutrality of the authors” (Gough & Shackley, 2001, p. 338). The use of scientific arguments and methods within epistemic communities to convey the evidence related to the various aspects of climate change, such as the effect of temperature changes on biodiversity, extreme weather events and ecological habitat, allows for knowledge to be mobilized in both government and extra-government policy communities (examples include Malcolm & Markham, 2000; Vellinga & van Verseveld, 2000).

This partnership of expertise from both outside and inside government constitutes an epistemic union that has helped frame the climate change problem as an anthropogenic problem. In addition to NGOs, private sector research and professional organizations are also be part of this epistemic communities and use non-academic and more participatory forms of communicating scientific evidence. This has been particularly pronounced in the United States, where scientists and policy advisers are divided on the fundamental belief about whether and to what extent the roots of the climate change problem are anthropogenic (Bolsen et al., 2015) and the accompanying understanding that suitable solutions to this problem can be created through policy. In this light, epistemic communities deal with understanding not only the problem of climate change but also the problems that can plague climate governance.

In the arena of intergovernmental climate policy, as another example, NGOs have been particularly influential in informing policymakers alongside scientists and national policy experts. A survey of participants from two consecutive UNFCCC COPs in South Africa (2011) and Qatar (2012) revealed that business and industry NGOs (or “BINGOs”) are particularly influential as providers of sectoral expertise and technical support during the policy negotiation phases (Nasitirousi, Hjerpe, & Linnér, 2016). As stated by the International Chamber of Commerce, the function of BINGOs at international climate negotiations have included “the creation and deployment of technology, finance, investment, trade and capacity building, participating in international mechanisms and other approaches to promote mitigation and adaptation” (International Chamber of Commerce, 2010).

Instrument Constituencies and the Policy Stream of Climate Change

In a series of studies dealing with how different emission trading programs have developed in the area of climate change policy (Mann & Simons, 2014; Voß & Simons, 2014), scholars have emphasized the role played by actors in this grouping who, despite having their origins in disparate backgrounds and organizations, can come together in mutual support of particular types of policy tools. In the same way that epistemic communities propagate depictions of policy problems, members of instrument constituencies stay united in their common “fidelity” not to any particular problem definition or political aim, but instead to their promotion of a particular policy instrument or combination of policy instruments.

The actors in instrument constituencies are joined by their commitment to the design and endorsement of specific policy tools as the solution to a broad array of policy problems, usually in an abstract form that can then be modified when applied to real-world contexts. In this light, the policy tools that get created or modified, adapted and evaluated in the process of fitting solutions to policy problems can be thought of as the cognitive constructs of particular social groups of individuals active in the process of policymaking. For example, the evaluation of carbon credits as a policy instrument in Europe requires technical discussions involving not just governmental actors but also professional agents—like accountants—that deal with financial accounts. These accounting organizations have become increasingly important in the epistemic community surrounding climate change in Europe “through launching professional training courses, funding research and initiating corporate workshops and seminars” (Lovell & MacKenzie, 2011, p. 704).

The communities surrounding particular policy instruments are thus, like epistemic communities, “networks of heterogeneous actors from academia, policy consulting, public policy and administration, business, and civil society, who become entangled as they engage with the articulation, development, implementation and dissemination of a particular technical model of governance” (Voß & Simon, 2014). They are composed of individuals who exist in the policy arena to work toward developing and refining a particular instrument and who form deliberate groupings in order to help their particular version of the instrument culminate into policy. Such actors “whose practices thus constitute and are constituted by the instrument” develop “a discourse of how the instrument may best be retained, developed, promoted and expanded” (Voß & Simons, 2014).

What unites these actors is the role they play in “the set of stories, knowledge, practice and tools needed to keep an instrument alive both as model and implemented practice” (Voß & Simons, 2014). The instrument constituency that has formed around carbon emissions trading since the 1980s, for example, has witnessed several different mechanisms of communication and dissemination of knowledge about this instrument being used over the last three decades. Initial policy enthusiasm with emission trading was reflected in the strong complementarity between environmental economics theory and practice that this instrument reflected (Oates, 2000; Simons, Lis, & Lippert, 2014).

Emissions trading experiments proliferated in the United States during this initial period of constituency development, “and most importantly, the ‘Emissions Trading Program’ (ETP) for industry pollutants constituted ‘a proof-of-principle’ for the functioning of emission markets” (Voß & Simons, 2014, p. 743). International support for carbon trading swelled through the 1990s, which saw the instrument constituency expanding through the strategic choice of venues for communicating its support for a market-based, emissions trading program. Reports and analyses by the OECD and United Nations proliferated during the 1990s, in preparation of launching a joint framework at the UNFCCC, together with the International Energy Agency “for the Annex I Expert Group—‘the most important forum for the elaboration of an international emissions trading system’” (Braun, 2009).

Strategic communication with policymakers remained fundamental to the strength of the ETS constituency as the instrument matured through the development of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS). A key step in solidifying policymaker support for this instrument and its proponents involved demonstrating

the elegance of an almost self-governing policy instrument that could be operated light-handedly by adjusting an emission cap and leaving the rest to the market. In addition, it was made clear that the instrument’s design and operation required special expertise and services that governments would request from advisors and consultants—and that those who would start early to get acquainted with the new instrument and position themselves as experts would have a ‘first-mover advantage’ with respect to the newly emerging market for policy expertise.

(Voß & Simons, 2014, pp. 745–746)

Another example of an instrument constituency can be found surrounding the use of seasonal climate forecasting (SCF) as a policy tool. Here, a variety of policy actors have been found to be instrumental in connecting the academic experts and “producers” of scientific knowledge about SCF with “consumers” or decision-makers (Dilling & Lemos, 2011). This intermediary, instrument-supporting role is sometimes fulfilled by the private sector, for example, by encouraging the use of SCFs in agribusiness development (Changnon & Changnon, 2010). In other cases, such as that in the U.S. Pacific Island region, information brokers of the instrument constituency have worked to “increase the usability of SCFs in planning and decision making” (Dilling & Lemos, 2011, p. 685).

Political Advocacy Coalitions and the Politics Stream of Climate Change Policy

Politically active policy actors, lobbyists, and interest groups are often more publicly visible than substantive experts who collaborate in defining and refining the technical aspects of policy problems and solutions. Such visible actors can include, for example, “the president and his high-level appointees, prominent members of the Congress, the media and such elections-related actors as political parties and campaigns” (Kingdon, 2011, p. 64). Although often posited by ACF advocates as comprising all actors within a policy subsystem, the role of advocacy coalitions in vying to get their preferred policies chosen in policy decisions implies that they can more usefully be thought of as synonymous with the actors involved primarily in the politics “stream” of policymaking, including civil servants, political executives, legislators and others (Kingdon, 2011; Weishaar, Amos, & Collin, 2015).

Using opposing problem frames is an important communication strategy that contesting advocacy coalitions in the politics streams utilize to forward their differing climate policy agendas onto policymakers. Here coalition members employ knowledge about what are the competing views on important policy problems or solutions, knowledge of public opinion and party platforms, and knowledge of executive and individual aims and ambitions to develop a “variety of uses from argumentation with opponents to mobilization of supporters” (Weible et al., 2011).

For an advocacy coalition, communicating its core beliefs with an aim to translate it into policy also greatly depends on its resources and the proximity to key decision-makers. Coalition resources include financial endowments, politically powerful experts, the number of supporters, and legal authority (Sabatier, 1987; Sabatier & Weible, 2007). This last resource is fundamental to successfully communicating about coalition beliefs to policymakers about issues like climate change, with the specific aim of getting these beliefs translated into policies. As expressed by Sabatier, “one of the basic strategies of any coalition is to manipulate the assignment of responsibilities in governmental programs so that units it controls have the most authority” (1987, p. 664).

For example, in discussing the perceptual divides that polarize the political debate about climate change in the United States, Nisbet (2009) discusses how powerful advocacy actors can frame the nature and consequences of climate change in contrasting ways—for example, how far and to what extent do human activities contribute to climate change?—eventually enabling one to impact climate decisions more profoundly than the other.

During the 1990s, a framing strategy elucidating anthropogenic climate change as being “scientifically uncertain” was successfully “incorporated into talking points, speeches, white papers and advertisements” by an anti-climate change advocacy coalition composed of supportive think tanks and Congress members to counter major climate policy proposals and the policy decisions related to the United States ratification of the Kyoto Protocol (Nisbet, 2009, p. 19). Opposing coalitions became plainly visible during this period given their strong desire to communicate and perpetuate the stark polarity of views on to what extent climate change resulted from and was in itself an anthropogenic phenomenon (Cox, 2012; Dunlap & McCright, 2008, Jacques, Dunlap, & Freeman, 2008; McCright & Dunlap, 2003).

The “carbon-heavy” coalition that emerged on the other side of the issue, representing interests surrounding the primacy of fossil fuel use, channeled their views “through the megaphones of the mass media, and persistent lobbying of politicians to deliberately create an impression of inadequate scientific understanding, continuing lack of scientific consensus and legitimate alternate explanations for the growing evidence global climate warming” (Moser, 2010, p. 32). On the other hand, those political actors who accepted the scientific findings of human-driven climate change and projections of climate change implications, presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), used their communication strategies to increase public awareness and advocating for policy change (Moser, 2010; Moser & Dilling, 2006).

Studies regarding the beliefs surrounding global warming in the country has revealed that “scientists and policy advisors also appear to form beliefs about global warming that are consistent with their underlying values. Among the public and policy advisors, Democrats and liberals are more likely to accept the scientific consensus regarding the reality of global warming, while conservatives and Republicans are significantly less likely to express a belief that is consistent with the scientific consensus on this issue” (Bolsen et al., 2015, p. 18). As propounded by Dan Kahan, “people with individualistic values resist scientific evidence that climate change is a serious threat because they have come to assume that industry-constraining carbon-emission limits are the main solution. They would probably look at the evidence more favourably, however, if made aware that the possible responses to climate change include nuclear power and geoengineering, enterprises that to them symbolize human resourcefulness” (2010, p. 297).

As the knowledge about climate change has spread widely since the 1990s, with far greater scientific agreement, the divide between climate coalitions has become somewhat less stark and a bit more nuanced (Doran & Zimmerman, 2009). Similar to what Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith observed through their work examing offshore oil drilling in the U.S., these coalitions exist now in a contested situation marked by several main idea sets competing for dominance instead of a single major divide of policy beliefs (Howlett et al., 2009; Moser 2010; Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1993).

In such situations, the main communication strategies of using different problem frames as well as gaining authority in the policymaking process still remains relevant for competing climate coalitions vying for policymaker consideration. The present generation of climate policy frames that are used to gain access to and communicate with policymaking processes is more focused on suggesting multiple policy synergies and complementarities, rather than perpetuating an incommensurable bifurcation of policy ideals, as was the case with earlier efforts of climate change communication (Nisbet, 2009). Communication strategies that couple climate action with economic development, for example, reframe climate change as an opportunity for economic growth, more jobs, greater energy security through the use of renewable energy, and energy efficiency, thereby attracting political support from a variety of sectors and, therefore, a greater possibility of policy action (Nordhaus & Shellenberger, 2007).

Conclusion: Policy Advisory Systems and the Brokering of Climate Policy Knowledge

Policy advisory systems, serve as collections of “knowledge brokers” or “intermediaries between the knowledge generators and proximate decision-makers, repackaging data and information into usable form” (Howlett, 2011, p. 33). Including a discussion of policy advisory systems and its constituent actor collectives has been an important development in policy studies, a discipline that for decades has been aware of the reality that very little of the vast array of output emerging out of scientific research and formal policy analysis actually is used directly to inform policy decisions (Caplan, 1979; Caplan, Morrison, & Stambaugh, 1975; Landry, Lamari, & Amara, 2003; Shulock, 1999; Weiss, 1976).

The examples cited above suggest that scientific evidence and advice on climate change is more likely to be accepted under conditions in which there is a diverse mix of policies and technologies that are advocated. As the discussion in this article has conveyed, the advocacy of some policy options over others and the choices made about what knowledge to convey to policymakers and in what manner vary in the different groups that are involved at different points of the climate policy process, with different capacities and proximities to decision-makers. The depiction of multiple sources of knowledge and policy advice, and their various modes of communication within a policy advisory system, not only reflects the complex reality of policymaking contexts but also helps to move beyond a simplistic understanding of policymaker uptake of knowledge being a product of the interaction between two communities: the experts who “supply” the policy-relevant knowledge and the political decision makers who use or “demand” this knowledge.

Contemporary policy studies discuss knowledge utilization in terms of the interaction of knowledge producers and consumers with policy advisors or brokers in advice systems in which each task is undertaken by a separate grouping of actors: from epistemic communities to instrument constituencies and political advocacy coalitions (Halligan, 1995; Lindquist, 1990; Newman, 2014). Policy brokerage activities in particular “have gained importance in response to the increased complexity of policymaking, as the amount of information policy makers must absorb and master increases and the fast pace of problems and public demands heighten” (Geist, Howlett, & Mukherjee, 2015, p. 130).

As shown above, examples of the activities of these actors in climate change policy abound, marking the success of information brokers in advisory roles who have expanded the opportunities for creating “usable science” for policymakers (Dillig & Lemos, 2011). And communicating about climate change with policymakers is closely linked to the interests and endowments of those actors who serve in advisory roles in the policymaking process. This article has emphasized three main streams of communicative activity in the policy process related to climate change tied to the distinctive interests pursued by three groups of policy actors who furnish advice to policymakers.

First, promoting an understanding of the problem of climate change is the realm of knowledge-oriented, epistemic communities. Their communication styles and activities are oriented toward defining and prioritizing aspects of climate change as a social problem and framing these dimensions in terms of policy goals that policymakers can deliberate and act upon. Members of epistemic communities engage in modes of communication involving the transfer of scientific knowledge about problems to decision-makers through reports, technical papers and articles, and participation in forums aimed at knowledge diffusion—such as multi-stakeholder policy workshops.

Second, a focus on devising policy means to address climate change policy goals is linked to the activities of the constituencies promoting a chosen policy instrument. In the climate change case, these constituencies form around instruments such as emissions trading, cap-and-trade mechanisms, or carbon taxes. They are composed of a variety of state and non-state actors who communicate the merits of their favored instruments strategically in multi-sector, high-impact policy decision-making venues such as the meetings leading up to the UNFCCC.

Third, the advocacy coalitions who engage in the “politics” stream of policymaking vie to get their preferred issues on to the government decision agendas, often by using opposing discursive frames to assert the relative primacy of their policy beliefs before decision-makers. Gaining access to venues of authority is important for them to convey coalition beliefs—such as the scientific incontrovertibility of climate change—to policymakers and the public.


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