CKB Manifesto Interview with William Becker

William (Bill) Becker is Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP), an NGO. He previously worked for the US Department of Energy.

Bill_BeckerThe interview was conducted by Vickie Healey from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).


Vickie Healey: First, could you describe what your job entails and the type of decision you take where climate relevant information is important?

Bill Becker: I am a provider and intermediary – a policy advisor. Not an elected official but an intermediary. It’s a fine point, but I work mostly with foundation grants and universities so cannot advocate a specific policy. There is a narrow line between advocacy and information.


VH: What type of climate relevant information do you use?

BB: I look for information that bridges the gap between climate science and climate/energy policy. I acquire scientific data from multiple sources ranging from written reports to information available on the Internet. On the political side of the bridge, I use web-based databases, news reports and news services to track trends in state and federal policies, laws and regulations. An example of a useful date base is the Advanced Energy Legislation Tracker at the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University. It’s worth mentioning, too, that I gather information about the best ways to communicate with a variety of audiences, including conservatives, about the need for climate action and a clean energy revolution.


VH: Are you the direct user of the information, or do you primarily inform someone else who has a decision to take?

BB: Both. I use the information myself to write columns for Huffington Post and several other blogs and to populate the Presidential Climate Action Project website ( , a site dedicated specifically to informing presidential and congressional candidates about energy and climate policy ideas in an effort to have them discuss these topics during the campaign season and to build intelligent campaign platforms. On the other hand in my role as a policy advisor to several organizations, I provide information to the decision makers in those organizations.


VH: What is the timeframe for those decisions? How much notice do you normally have to prepare the decisions?

BB: There is no “normal”. I sometimes make decisions about energy and climate policies and how to communicate them in the course of a few hours. Other times when more extensive research is required or when information is more illusive, it may take 3-4 weeks to make a decision. Generally, however, I need to be facile so that I’m able to hop on a “speeding train” of a fast-moving issue or opportunity. Another way to put this Is that I gather information that I may not use immediately, but that allows me to be “shovel ready” when the right moment for that information arises in the public or political conversation.


VH: Where do you get your knowledge and information on climate issues from? Who are your trusted knowledge providers? Which one do you trust for which parts of your knowledge?

Specifically, I find my best information sources to be the EE News service, which turns out several reports daily on climate and energy developments; Grist, a popular climate blog; news services such as the New York Times; research organizations such as Pew; public opinion polling by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications, Pew, Gallup and others; reports from the Energy Information Administration and the International Energy Agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the US climate science programs at NOAA, EPA, DOE and other federal agencies. Because much of my information is used in the context of presidential actions and authorities, I also monitor developments publicized by the White House and websites like Politico, and I get information from time to time from contacts in the Administration including the White House.


VH: Where this is specific individuals or organisations, rather than simply websites, reports, etc. what is the relationship with them like? How were those relationships established?

I serve as a member of or policy consultant and advisor to several organizations: Natural Capitalism Solutions; the Environment & Energy Study institute; the Clean Energy Solutions Center; Mikhail Gorbachev’s International Climate Change Task Force. In most cases, the relationships that led to these assignments developed in the course of my climate and energy work. For example, I served as a senior official for 15 years in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, working on these subjects. I’ve worked in national policy circles for nearly 10 years. In some cases, relationships developed when I invited well-known thought leaders to serve on advisory boards or to attend conferences associated with my work.


VH: What do you understand by the term ‘climate knowledge broker’? Would you describe any of the providers mentioned earlier a climate knowledge broker?

BB: I would describe all of the organizations and people I’ve mentioned as “knowledge brokers”. I define it as someone who conveys objective information and conveys it effectively to other stakeholders in the climate and energy fields. In my view, good knowledge brokers do not simply serve as a pipeline through which information flows from one place to another. The “broker” role involves assimilating, interpreting, sorting, translating and integrating information to create new or derivative knowledge. In other cases, a good broker is an innovator, coming up with creative ideas for public policy solutions that go beyond but are informed by known knowledge. Knowledge brokers include people who share knowledge within their peer groups, and people who share it outside the peer group – for example, an educator conveying knowledge to his or her students. In this latter category are people whose job is to convey information to other segments of society who may be interested, whose lives are affected, or whose jobs involve shaping business plans, public policies, and so on. What I and many other knowledge brokers in the environmental arena have learned, I think, is that how we convey information is as important as the information we convey. There was a time when I and many of my colleagues went in search or moral victories by converting other people to our points of view. The better part of knowledge brokering, however, is to communicate ideas in the language and in the value systems of the audience. In regard to climate change, for example, the most effective brokering would frame information in terms of stewardship for people in the faith community; or natural resources and wildlife to the hunter/angler community; or emerging markets to the business community. One has to learn to be multi-lingual in the cultural sense.


VH: What is, or would be, the best format for knowledge to be presented to make it easy for you to take on board?

BB: The Internet is the fastest and most agile source of information. The downside is that information on the Internet often is not validated for accuracy. Conferences are much more time, money, and energy consuming, which puts them at the bottom of the list for many organizations concerned about budgets or carbon emissions. Nevertheless, I have found that the spontaneous interactions with colleagues at well-designed conferences are invaluable. In regard to length, shorter is better given the enormous amount of information available today.

Although you asked about how I like to receive knowledge, there are some important points to make about how best to convey knowledge. I’ve done some work in this regard, particularly in an initiative called “The Future We Want” that I and a partner conduced with the United Nations in 2012. Visual communication generally is orders of magnitude more effective than written communication. Information that makes an issue proximate for an audience – in other words relevant to their own lives both physically and temporally is very important. There are some dramatic examples in American history where information conveyed in these ways has changed the course of our history, including the White City exhibit of electricity at the end of the 19th century at the Chicago World’s Fair and the Futurama Exhibit of a mobile car-centered society at the New York World’s Fair in 1936.


VH: What is your biggest concern when it comes to finding climate relevant information? Are there any gaps in the available information or knowledge which you would like to see filled? Are there limitations to the way knowledge is currently provided or problems in the way that providers work?

BB: In recent years the biggest gap has been the need for localized information on the impacts of climate change. For decades, scientists focused on the global impacts of climate change. A few years ago, the science community came under criticism for not focusing more on regional and local impacts so that communities could prepare for impacts. Organizations such as NOAA have been much better since then at providing information at a finer level of granularity, but the fact remains that it is difficult to localize climate science.

Again, although the question asks about gaps I’ve found in receiving knowledge, I am more concerned about gaps in conveying knowledge to the American people. Gaps exist because information is discredited by special interest groups that profit from the status quo. And there are some intrinsic difficulties in communicating information about climate change. It is easier for climate deniers to persuade people to do nothing than it is for climate activists to persuade people to change. There is a lot of demagoguery by those special interests, with scare tactics about rising energy prices and the UN forcing people to move into cities. And there is the fact that scientists and the rest of us speak two different languages. When a scientist says he or she is 90% certain about something, many of us think he is unsure; for a scientist, 90% certainty means you can take a finding “to the bank”.

One of the most important problems in how knowledge providers work involves negative versus positive communications. As I said, visual communication is very powerful. Most movies and television programs that deal with the future present it as dystopian. Most information coming from science also deals with the forces of dystopia. The result is that people can feel overwhelmed and hopeless and, in some cases, depressed. We need to balance the negative ideas about the future with visions of the positive future we can create if we put out minds to it. We need positive visions that pull us into action as well as negative visions that push us. Both must work together.

One barrier is that positive visions are most often absent from policy process. As the late environmental educator Donella Meadows said, we talk about our fears a lot, but we rarely talk about our visions. I think that’s especially true in public policy making.


VH: How important is knowledge from climate science in your decision-making?

BB: Very important. Climate policy must be based on good science. The challenge is to put it into useable form for the rest of us who are not scientists. My job is to develop public policy recommendations that are science-based. But I also have to decide how to communicate those recommendations so they are not dead on arrival when they reach policy makers. For example, I have found it more effective to talk about climate science in terms of risk. The science defines the risks of inaction; the job of elected officials is to help society mitigate those risks. In this context, we don’t have to agree that all the climate scientists are correct; we simply have to acknowledge that they may be correct.


VH: How do you weigh up knowledge from more than one source to create actionable knowledge on your side?

BB: I look for the “preponderance of evidence”. When 97% of climate scientists say it is real and only 3% say it isn’t, I go with the 97%.


VH: What other factors do you have to take into account? How do you prioritise them?

BB: In regard to building bridges between science and policy, I often prioritize knowledge based on its impact on things the public cares about. If a particular audiences is worried about government spending, I place higher value on information that indicates how climate impacts will affect spending. If the audience is concerned about the stewardship of God’s creation, I will give higher priority to information about massive loss of species and habitat. If the audience puts a premium on a healthy economic and good jobs, I bring up the data that addresses those priorities. Because there are so many issues vying for the attention of the American people and their leaders, knowledge has to be prioritized to address what is high on people’s priority lists.


VH: Can you give any specific examples where a climate knowledge broker has influenced your decisions?

BB: Yes. Brokers on the science side – people such as John Holdren and Regina Bierbaum, both distinguished scientists who I know personally and trust – have influenced what information I convey to my audiences. On the other hand, experienced public officials such as former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, have taught me a great deal about how to convey controversial knowledge in ways that defuse partisanship.


VH: Do you have any other comments on issues relevant to our discussion?

BB: It is a big universe, with knowledge transfer going on within academic and scientific circles, within government circles, within the NGO and foundation communities, in the media, in the public and in the crossovers between all of those communities.

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