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Communication expert: ‘Tipping point’ climate legislation needs better PR

Barbara Willard to moderate panel on Inflation Reduction Act

Climate protestors holding
Many Americans don't recognize that the Inflation Reduction Act has the potential to make a significant impact in mitigating climate change, says DePaul's Barbara Willard. (

A piece of legislation that could be the "tipping point" for climate change mitigation needs a new public relations campaign, says Barbara Willard, associate professor in the College of Communication. Willard will moderate a panel of DePaul experts in public policy, sustainable urban development, environmental science and more to discuss the Inflation Reduction Act and its impact on the future of climate change. In this Q&A, Willard discusses how a shift in communication strategy could bring this powerful law out of the shadows and gain public support.

Barbara Willard
Barbara Willard is an expert in environmental communication. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)

Why do you believe the Inflation Reduction Act is significant to addressing the climate crisis? How are policymakers positioning the act, and what do you think should change about how they are communicating about the law's potential impact?

The Inflation Reduction Act contains almost $370 billion earmarked for investments in energy and climate mitigation. It targets renewable energy, clean transportation, efficient buildings and homes, supply chain infrastructure, green technology and more. Along with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the CHIPS Act (which contains funding for clean-energy R&D), the IRA puts the United States on target to reduce emissions 50% by 2030. This could be the tipping point for making real progress on climate change mitigation.

Many Americans don't recognize that this legislation is going to accomplish all this, and that was somewhat by design. The IRA blends elements of the Build Back Better Act and the Green New Deal, reframing and renaming it to appease those who felt green legislation was too extreme for the nation. By folding clean-energy innovation and job creation into this bill, climate change initiatives are seen for what they are – money-saving, job-creating innovations that also will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Rhetorically, it helped pass the legislation to couch it in terms of inflation reduction and cost savings. The work now comes in translating how the American public can benefit from climate legislation. This includes tax breaks and jobs to shift to a clean-energy manufacturing economy. This will take place over the next decade, and it needs to be communicated to the public. So, what the IRA needs, and perhaps President Biden needs, is a good PR campaign.

As a scholar of environmental communication, you have written what some might think is a provocative idea: It's time to stop focusing so much on individual actions to end climate change, like recycling. How can disruptive messages like this help change the conversation around the climate crisis?

The emphasis on taking individual actions shifts attention from the tremendous change that is needed at the systemic level. We need grand policies and laws implemented at the federal, state, and local levels. We need corporations to be held accountable for their contribution to the climate change crisis. By focusing on our own behaviors, it allows corporations to fade into the background and continue their polluting production practices. Industries have even played up on our personal guilt and used it as a greenwashing technique. For example, the big oil company BP developed the idea of the Carbon Footprint Calculator so that individuals could determine their part in creating greenhouse gas emissions. This red-herring strategy is exactly what happens when the emphasis for environmental change is placed on the individual and not on the systems that create the problem in the first place.

DePaul has scholars in public policy, religious studies, environmental science and sustainable urban development gathering to discuss this law. How can experts across disciplines communicate more effective about the climate crisis and this Act in particular?

First, they can stress that this is indeed a climate change bill and that it should be taken seriously. Americans are cynical about our government and politicians, but that shouldn't be a knee-jerk reaction, especially with this piece of legislation. This bill, along with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the CHIPS Act, are the largest investment our country has made in climate change mitigation. This is the start to the clean-energy transition, and it has teeth to it in the form of tax incentives, R&D, and subsidies, for individuals and corporations. Furthermore, it focuses on equity, making right the wrongs that we have dealt to minority communities, the sacrifice zones that we have left behind in the wake of our fossil fuel economy.

The scholars at DePaul who address environmental topics know climate change is real and stress it in their classes. They do not try and hide the reality of this very real threat. But they also give hope. And these pieces of legislation, especially the IRA, give hope. But the legislation can't do it on its own. We are a democracy and must hold our elected officials accountable. We need to address the work that still needs to be done in the United States and on the world stage.

Attend the event

The event "Landmark Climate Legislation: The Inflation Reduction Act Panel" will be held Thursday, April 20, on DePaul University's Lincoln Park Campus starting at 4:30 p.m. The event is co-sponsored by Just DePaul, Division of Mission and Ministry and the Center for Communication Engagement. Register online.