In earlier posts, we examined climate change engagement as problems of environmental literacy and communication. There is no doubt we can do better with both of these. But as we will see, proponents of environmental literacy and communication make a mistake if they believe engagement is simply a matter of getting more information to people. Science, it is believed, will speak for itself.
Unfortunately, it often doesn’t.
A political scientist recently told me that before the age of 25, people use information to shape their value system and perceptions of the world. After 25, they start cherry picking information that simply reinforces these beliefs (hence the world of cable news).
Although this is is a rough generalization, it suggests that a person’s values development may have a shelf life. It also reveals why issues like climate change may not resonate with people cut from certain ideological cloths—no matter how much information they encounter.
The psychology, sociology, and ethics literature has a lot to say about this problem. For simplicity, I want to pull out four challenges I think are among the most common and important with respect to climate change…
Challenge 1: Problems that are global in nature and distant in the future are not considered urgent
Matt Nisbet’s article1 that we looked at last time contained another Pew poll that came out earlier this year, asking Americans which issue should be Obama’s top priority:
If you look at how priorities of Americans are changing over the past two years, some pretty obvious trends show up:
These kinds of data are not new. Quality of environment is generally a latent concern for most people. But when asked to rank the importance of things like climate change against other issues that are personal (economy, health care) or are easily manipulated for political gain (terrorism, deficits), environmental concerns usually lose.
Update: The new Bureau of Labor Statistics data out today are grim:
Challenge 2: Cultural identity shapes perceptions and responses to environmental issues
Earlier this year, the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication published a report1 called Global Warming’s Six Americas 2009: An Audience Segmentation Analysis (Maibach et al. 2009).
There were a number of important outcomes of this study that have wide-ranging implications for climate change, environmentalism, and environmental studies programs.
The first interesting point is that they identified six clusters of Americans falling along a spectrum from alarmed to dismissive about climate change:
There are three larger groups here:
So what do these groups mean in terms of engagement with and commitment to climate warming?
These statistics are eye-opening:
Who are these folks relative to what a “typical” American looks like demographically?
These data are also eye-opening. You can read the demographic breakdowns in the figure, but a number of things stand out:
Challenge 3: People don’t see personal harm arising from climate change within their lifetimes
The Maibach article also speaks to this challenge. In the figure below, they ask two questions:
As you can see in the left graph, there’s a lot of brown (only a little and not at all) and gray (don’t know). More people think they will die from cancer, a heart attack, or an auto accident than being harmed by climate warming.
However, when the audience thinks about future generations, they think that there is greater risk of harm.
This distinction may help with the climate change communication challenge in the earlier post. In fact, if you’ve had a chance to see climate modeler James Hansen talk recently, this is one of his pitches. He frames the impacts of warming in terms of the harm his grandchildren will experience.
Challenge 4: Some climate-impacting behaviors are easier to change than others
Dramatic reductions in carbon emissions in a short period of time are going to require significant behavioral changes in transportation, diet, and powering our lives. Unfortunately, we are creatures of habit. And our lifestyles are locked in based on things like how our homes, cities, and roads were designed decades ago and the kinds of transportation available to us.
As mentioned in an earlier post, a paper out this week by Tom Dietz and colleagues suggested that policy measures like cap and trade could take years to implement. Why not take a look at how much readily available technologies in U.S. homes could potentially reduce emission in the short term?
How much of a difference could households make? According to Dietz et al., they are
So if we could modify behaviors associated with household energy use, we might be able to bring about relatively quick and possibly large reductions. The outlook is mixed, however, as suggested by this table:
Some main points: