Climate Change changers provide a compelling, useful, and on-going case study of persuasion failure. Everyone knows the sky is falling and knows why the sky is falling and how to stop the sky from falling, yet no one is doing anything to stop the sky from falling. This can only occur if you are lousy at persuasion. (Or lousy at science, but let’s concede that for the moment. The sky is falling, we know why, and we can stop it, but we don’t.) Why this persuasion failure?
We’ve looked at numerous examples in the Persuasion Blog, but they tend to be specific and focused examples that ignore the broader sweep and scope of Climate Change changers. I’ve now found a helpful source that traces the Local of Climate Change changers almost from the beginning through at least 2012. The authors are participant-observers, that is, both academic researchers trying to understand the Other Guys while also being part of the Other Guys themselves. They believe in Climate Change and they are also curious about how the thing works, or in this case, doesn’t. They provide that sweep and scope in a qualitative analysis of this persuasion case. Let’s begin at their end.
In closing, our study contributes to understanding why, despite the widespread agreement on the urgency of mitigating climate change and of developing adaptation mechanisms, powerful actors still seem unwilling and unable to subscribe to a single course of action and to provide an effective solution.
Thus, these insider researchers, who’ve participated in most of the major UN sponsored meetings, believe that the Climate Change changers have failed. They have not persuaded key Other Guys to do anything useful for solving the problem. So, in this research report, published in a peer review journal, people who are qualified observers (and believers) report on their observations of the major source of Climate Change persuasion, the various United Nations groups, the players working in that context, and the characteristics of that Local. Consider this foundational observation.
Hardy and Maguire (2010) argued that field-configuring events can catalyze change because they provide discursive spaces not normally available: they are temporally bounded, special moments in the life of a field and facilitate interactions among field members that do not usually interact.
Translated into practical persuasion this means people combine into large transnational units that can change the world through the use of communication (discursive spaces that facilitate interaction) among members with deadlines (temporally bounded, special moments). More compactly: Cool Tables with time limits.
While transnational units exhaust the universe for communication Locals (unless E.T. is out there), you can still apply this idea to any setting where all the Other Guys can be divided into smaller segments of groups. In the Fed, I lived in a Local segmented by branch of government (Executive, Legislative, or Judicial), then within branch, different Agencies (Defense, Commerce, Labor, HHS, and so on), then within any Agency, many different Centers, Institutes, and Offices, and on and on with the Fed organizational chart. Even if you are living in the Local called a Mom and Pop business, you can segment by customers, suppliers, and so on. In other words, the transnational nature of this Local is big, but still just different groups of Other Guys in the Local.
You then construct Cool Tables and populate them with representatives from the various segments. Now add time limits for their interactions. And, while they are communicating, they are communicating in discursive spaces which means everyone gets their turn at the microphone while everyone else (theoretically) listens. Such interaction will cause everyone to understand everyone else, discover areas of agreement, and through the pressure of known and shared deadlines, will create action. While not made explicit in this paper, I also believe the central motivating force behind all this is that irrefutable, irrevocable, and irresistible science. The Apple is Falling.
I’ve seen this work before.
Just as I was joining NIOSH in the late 1990s, they had completed a nationwide series of town hall meetings with anyone remotely interested in workplace health and safety. From these meetings, NIOSH developed a list of specific areas for research which had widespread concern and support. They refined both the items and their wording by forming content committees who discussed a specific area in depth with those Other Guys most concerned about it. From this iterative Cool Table operation emerged NORA, the National Occupational Research Agenda.
NIOSH leadership then took NORA to the President and Congress and got the best kind of change you can count: Funding. NIOSH got the funding because of the Cool Table operation. Other Guys who participated in the Cool Table town hall meetings or committee work called the President or their Congressional representatives and persuaded for both NORA in general and their specific area in particular.
The people behind the play knew what already existed, but let the Other Guys on the Cool Table discover it for themselves in public. This process not only let the Cool Table show off, but also built a natural constituency to advocate, support, and work the research area. The Cool Table also functioned as a reliable source of public knowledge and its distribution, so that over time almost everyone with even a minimal interest in workplace health and safety knew about the Cool Table and its operations. You can use the Cool Table as a sleeper hold, as I often recommend, but you can also use it to make things happen.
So, you can combine large and diverse groups of Other Guys, glide them into discursive spaces with plenty of time at the microphone while a clock is running and you will get both ideas and action that then leads to the big change you want to count.
It. Does. Work.
Why not with Climate Change changers? The researchers offer four detailed observations explaining why things with the UN Climate Change changers have failed so far. We’ll take them one at a time.
. . . we find that field-configuring events over time ceased to be interactionally open and temporally bounded as diverse actors with vested interests entered the field, power coalitions shifted, and the events became platforms for issues not strictly related to emission reduction. Under such conditions, the deliberate staging of the Copenhagen high-stakes event in 2009 to induce a sense of urgency in the climate negotiations prevented institutional change and resulted in an ongoing delay of substantive policy decisions.
Stated in persuasion terms, the discursive space became so open and so crowded that nothing got done. When planners realized this, they gambled on a “high stakes” Cool Table meeting in 2009 at Copenhagen that forced everyone to either work together . . . or not, as it turned out. Self interest usually beats Other interest.
Realize that Cool Tables should operate with tight control of who gets in. This quote explains that the UN process lost that control and just about anyone who was both noisy and rude could push into the Cool Table. Sure, there’s the dynamic tension here of being open and democratic versus enforcing rules from an open and democratic process. The UN changers failed to keep the Cool Table closed and defined as they practiced eternal open discursive spaces.
Because an overarching authority is missing in transnational fields, rules, norms, and understandings are continuously (re)negotiated and often highly ambiguous to include diverse actors and logics (Djelic & Quack, 2011).
And we know why the UN changers failed to keep the Cool Table closed and defined. Nobody had sufficient power or persuasion to enforce any interaction rules in the open discursive spaces. Even after the Cool Table first met and defined rules, no one enforced them and worse still, the Cool Table got bigger and bigger with more frequent rule violations and abuse of open discursive spaces. The consequences here are both obvious and destructive. Yet, no one did anything about it. Why?
I take recourse to the Rule of There Are No Laws and you see that here. Why did no one in this UN change process cowboy up and enforce rules, discipline, and focus? Who knows? The UN is always haunted with a lack of power whether in terms of guns and money or political legitimacy. It lacks sovereignty. But, even past that, if you’ve watched enough John Wayne movies, you know that one guy can stand up in the crowd, enforce justice, and things work out. Why has there been no one guy or even on small group of guys who rode herd on the rest to enforce the rules everyone had made?
And, it’s not like this oversight requires a horse, a gun, and the Duke. During the NORA process, NIOSH leadership had some power with money and access, but nothing decisive. However, that leadership controlled those town hall meetings and committees and locked down entrance and exit. They persistently kept to the public rules of NORA and enforced them personally, not with money or access. They just ruled both formally and informally the way effective group leaders (and persuaders) do. Apparently no single person or group in the UN process has ever operated like this. Stated another way, there’s no leadership in the UN Climate Change changer process.
So, here we are in our open discursive spaces, jibber-jabbering without fear of consequence, eating time while watching the clock count down, each pursuing our individual interest. Guess what happens?
. . . our findings suggest that the effects of field-configuring events are closely tied to emotions, so that analyzing such events can enrich recent efforts to understand the emotional dimension of institutional work (Voronov & Russ, 2012). Ritualistic performances afford shared emotional experiences and are often deliberately crafted to that end (Dacin, Munir, & Tracey, 2010); social movements partly gain their mobilization potential from emotions such as passion and feelings of solidarity (Flam & King, 2005; Goodwin, Jasper & Polletta, 2001; Goodwin, 2007). At the same time, our study has shown that heightened emotionality can also obstruct change under specific field conditions.
While certainly true of human nature, this observation damns the UN change process as little more than a pecking party. In the midst of doing science-based public policy, the UN change process permitted emotionality to dominate the discursive space. Of course, people will get fired up on big issues that personally involve them. That’s known and given. Any change process that does not recognize and control this only indicts its own incompetence. Here you see the flip side of the Wisdom of the Crowd. Crowds tend to encourage emotionality as they rampage down either the Peripheral Route or the Biased Central Route.
The Cool Table devolved into the Mob. An elite Mob. A scientific Mob. A sincere, passionate, and committed Mob. But a Mob.
When you have open discursive spaces and no one enforcing any kind of rules, you will soon get the Crowd at the Cool Table. Anyone who has worked with groups of humans at any age knows that groups without enforced norms of conduct will devolve into source material for the next version of Lord Of The Flies. No cohesion. No focus. No product. Just a lot of discursive open space filled with self interest and emotion.
And, especially when you point the Cool Table in this direction.
The field of climate policy is an extreme case of a transnational field, because the need to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions not only mobilizes governments, international and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), private sector actors, and research institutes all around the world (Orr, 2006), but also requires that millions of organizations and individuals change their production and consumption patterns, which implies a changed economic system for a threat that lies largely in the future (Giddens, 2009; Levy & Egan, 2003).
We arrive at the Ground Zero for this case study failure. This is the TACT statement. This is what we want all the Other Guys not at the Cool Table to do. The Target Action Context and Time. The Who does What Where and When.
Can you believe the scope and range of this TACT? It is absurd on the face of it, a massive leap of faith while doing science. Gee. Imagine that it is difficult to get 6 billion people to agree on the same threat and same solution that involves changed national and international economic systems? I realize that there are also much more specific TACTs in the various UN IPCC statements, but the general structure is both so vague and so wide as to strain common sense. Who thinks like this?
The cluelessness of this orientation to the TACTs exposes the wide ranging incompetence and inexperience of the UN Climate Change changers. They think they have irrefutable science that will motivate and discipline Cool Table representatives to restrain their human nature, emotional responding, and self-interested biases, play fair and nice with everyone else, and convince 6 billion Other Guys to change the foundations of their economies.
Of course, this error is not unique to Climate Change changers, but is common among those we know as the Sinceres. While Sinceres are authentic and often motivated to make you and your world a better place, all of their activity only presents, defends, or justifies themselves and their Sincerity. It almost never focuses upon or produces a change anyone can count in those Other Guys who need Sincere help. When you are Sincere, you are also Certain which makes you a double persuasion muggle.
The description of the people and their communication at these UN open discursive spaces provides an excellent illustration of Sincerity in action. It is nothing but irony to behold authentic experts joined together by science and torn apart by persuasion. Even with the Falling Apple in their hands, they cannot resist the persuasion gravity of the Fallen Apple as they fill precious time and space with their Sincerity at the expense of saving the Other Guys from a falling sky.
Read the Rules and pick the violations that seem most relevant, poignant, or destructive. These seem most obvious to me.
All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere.
If You Can’t Succeed, Don’t Try.
It’s about the Other Guy, Stupid.
Persuasion Is Strategic or It Is Not.
Drive with Science, Putt with Poetry.
You Cannot Persuade a Falling Apple.
If You Can’t Count It, You Can’t Change It.
All People Always Resist Significant Change.
Persuaders Can Either Be Famous or Effective, But Not Both.
Great Persuaders Don’t Need Rich Uncles, Kindness from Strangers, or Third Party Vote Splitters.
Past the Rule violations, please catch the lessons with this applied Cool Table. That play is extremely effective with large and diverse groups of Other Guys. You can capture a small number, put them on a Cool Table with rules, enforce those rules, and that Cool Table can produce what you want. They will discover what you already know, form alliances, generate commitment, publicize you and your idea, product, or service, and act as a persuasion agent on your behalf. (And, alternatively, you can use a Cool Table to distract idiots who are in your way. Same principles of operation, just a different persuasion goal.)
Here we see Climate Change changers trying the Cool Table play, but only for their own Sincerity. The absence of control and rules, the vague and nebulous TACTs, and rampant human nature destroy the application, but not the principle. Failure proves the foolishness of the muggle, not the persuasion play.
Schüßler, E., Rüling, C.-C., and Wittneben, B. (2014): On melting summits: The limitations of field-configuring events as catalysts of change in transnational climate policy. Academy of Management Journal, 57, 140-171.
Cut and paste this link to a preprint of the paper as of April 2014.