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Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 3: Personal perception, values, and behavior

Friday, November 6th, 2009


Prerequisite posts:

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:

Nisbet-table1-bigIf you look at how priorities of Americans are changing over the past two years, some pretty obvious trends show up:

  • It’s the economy—people are worried about their jobs.
  • At the bottom of the table, the percentage of people who think protecting the environment is a top issue has fallen from 57% to 41%.
  • Climate warming is dead last, falling from 38% to 30%.

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:

behav slide 1 (Small)

There are three larger groups here:

  • Those that get climate warming—the alarmed and concerned (54%)—make up a majority of Americans.
  • The cautious and disengaged (31%) are on the sidelines, either not sure about climate change or not perceiving it to be a salient issue.
  • The doubtful and dismissive (18%) are the climate warming skeptics and deniers.

So what do these groups mean in terms of engagement with and commitment to climate warming?

behav slide 2 (Small)

These statistics are eye-opening:

  • A full 82% of Americans have not yet engaged climate warming personally.
  • Almost half (49%) have not yet been convinced that warming is happening or they are actively hostile towards it.

Who are these folks relative to what a “typical” American looks like demographically?

behav slide 3 (Small)

These data are also eye-opening.  You can read the demographic breakdowns in the figure, but a number of things stand out:

  • This is why climate warming is also an issue of race, gender, class, education, and religion. All of these frames shape personal values regarding climate warming.  It means that we need to do a better job of engaging all of these constituencies.
  • People of color are falling out disproportionately in the disengaged group.
  • Blue-collar folks are in the cautious group on the sidelines.
  • Religion is a correlate with those doubtful or dismissive of climate warming as well as those disengaged.

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:

  • How much do you think global warming will harm you personally (left panel)?
  • How much do you think global warming will harm future generations (right panel)?

behav slide 4 (Small)

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

  • 38% of the overall US carbon emissions
  • 8% of global emissions
  • larger than the emissions of any single country except China

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:

behav slide 5 (Small)

Some main points:

  • Home weatherization is behavioral low-hanging fruit.  People are willing to do these things because they both save money and are good for the environment (probably in that order).  The good news is that there are sizable reductions that can be achieved.
  • Driving is the tough nut to crack.  People are simply unwilling to change driving behavior or carpool.  The bright spot here is fuel efficiency.  People are willing to drive cars with better gas mileage, so this behavior should continue to be encouraged with tax credits for hybrid and electric vehicles.

Related posts:


Photo credit: / CC BY 2.0

10 Responses to “Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 3: Personal perception, values, and behavior”

  1. [...] Global ChangeIntersection of Nature and Culture « Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 3: Personal perception, values, and behavior [...]

  2. [...] Problem 3—Personal perception, values, and behavior:  We saw how sociodemographic factors and cultural identity affect whether people engage climate warming.  Half of Americans have not yet accepted the idea that warming is real, and 82% have not taken personal action.  When political parties, certain religious groups, and some conservative think tanks align themselves on the wrong side of the warming issue, there will always be a political base for denial. [...]

  3. Albert Einstein said it best. The only way to solve a problem is to change the thinking that created it. Our habitual thinking, combined with what we say and most importantly, what we do is what will solve this problem. People are not engaging because thinking about the environmental status of our planet in the way we have been doing for the last 2 to 5 years makes us feel powerless. It is human nature to turn away from what makes us feel worse. While being realistic, we must relentlessly focus on the Solutions, and stay the course.

  4. I’m actually heartened to see those proportions. There’s been so much brouhaha over ClimateGate that I was afraid the deniers had triumphed. I’ve been making noise about diet change, by presenting a sort of ‘program’ for non-cooks and the under/unemployed. Then Hansen said if we reduce our footprint it just lowers the price of fossil fuels and lets someone else burn it. But I think diet specifically, with all the methane from meat production, is worth changing. We need contagion on this idea.

    Lynn Shwadchuck
    Diet for a small footprint and a small grocery bill.

  5. [...] didn’t do much to galvanize widespread action against climate warming.  As we’ll see in the next post, 82% of Americans have not engaged the issue of climate change [...]

  6. [...] can be limits to a “more knowledge” approach.  Namely, as we have seen with climate communication, cultural values shape the perception/reception of information.  Just as  scientific facts seldom [...]

  7. [...] would it take to persuade the 50% of Americans and others around the world who are unconvinced that warming is happening and that is has the [...]

  8. [...] my series on why people don’t engage climate change, we saw major socioeconomic and demographic differences in how people perceive climate [...]

  9. [...] same challenge—winning hearts and minds and changing behavior (and needing to recognize that more information, alone, simply won’t accomplish this).  The problem here is that a top-down approach, by itself, is woefully [...]

  10. [...] we often assume with environmental or nutritional issues, maybe simply helping to better educate people is all that’s needed? [...]


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