Changing the Climate Conversation

In a new study out of the University of Michigan, researcher Andy Hoffman attempts to answer the question many conservationists have been asking: why, with scientists worldwide corroborating that climate change is: 1) happening, and 2) caused by human activity, are people so slow to demand policy and behavioral change? Scientists have been researching and quantifying climate change scenarios for decades, yet comparatively little has been investigated from a sociological standpoint. And with today's election predictions warning of a U.S. government even more resistant to greenhouse gas regulations, it may be time to try a new angle in communicating climate change. Perhaps it has been a cultural issue all along, rather than a scientific one.

Hoffman compares lackadaisical responses to climate change to societal battles we've already fought in this country, battles such as the abolition of slavery or the sweeping bans on public smoking. While allowing slavery exists in a whole other realm of offense than public smoking, Hoffman bundled the two examples because they both represent practices that at one time were common, accepted, and economically beneficial to some. Both smoking and slavery took years to overcome, and continued as accepted practices even after large factions of the public denounced them.

"The issue was not just whether cigarettes cause cancer. It was whether people believed it. The second process is wholly different than the first," Hoffman said.

Hoffman is hoping conservationists can look back at these two examples to inform the fight against climate change. The issue now is not whether biking to work or weatherizing your home make a difference, the issue is whether people believe it.

The National Academy of Sciences recently published a similarly-focused study, a series it calls "America's Climate Choices." Risk communication relating to climate change has been comparatively ignored, so the NAS determined to get to the bottom of the societal factors that have been preventing meaningful progress. One of the study's findings describes the majority of Americans as feeling apathetic about their own contribution to mitigating climate change, while a significant percentage (though at 34 percent far from a majority) described themselves as "disengaged," "doubtful" or "dismissive" of the idea of climate change.

One recommendation from the study is to change the way climate change action is framed, to emphasize immediate individual benefit. For example, a person trying to lose weight would be more likely to bike to work if the action were framed as saving emissions as well as preventing obesity, rather than serving only as an altruistic act with long-term results that are unmeasurable on an individual basis.

Another recommendation from the NAS study is for local, web-based movements to keep up the good work. When people see others in their own communities making positive change, they are more likely to step up and pitch in. And while individual actions can feel like a drop in the bucket, people do have quite an influence on emissions in their daily lives. The Environmental Health Perspectives article on "America's Choices" quotes a finding by Michael Vandenbergh, director of the Climate Change Research Network at Vanderbilt University: eight percent of the entire world's total emissions come from individual households in the United States.

It seems like some facts should be able to speak for themselves. But as skeptics abound, it may be time to change the conversation.