Say hello to the 51 percent.
I sat next to a silver-coiffed retired bank CEO at dinner, and we got to chatting about the weather. (Lately it’s been hot). I asked him what he thought about climate change. “It’s happening,” he said. “But don’t try to change the mind of someone my age. It’s too late. They don’t want to hear it.” Is he right? Is the discussion over before it can even begin?
According to research from the Yale Program on Climate Communications (YPCCC), which has studied Americans’ attitudes on climate change since 2005, people’s opinions about the climate can change. Director Anthony Leiserowitz and his team study “The 6 Americas”: classifications ranging from “Alarmed” and “Concerned” at one end, to “Doubtful” and “Dismissive” at the other, with “Cautious” and Disengaged” comprising the soft mid-section.
Who are these people? What influences them on this topic? And why do some people shift from one classification to another, from “Cautious” (21% at last count) to “Concerned (30%), for instance. What is the elusive recipe for engaging a critical mass for bold policy and energy efficient technologies?
Depending on where you live, where you work, and other factors, like health issues and income, we’re each impacted differently by extreme weather and its consequences. It follows that there is no one message that will work to mobilize public demand for solutions.
A UPS delivery person in Arizona (high temp 115°F on July 5, 2018) will face different route obstacles than his colleague in fire-prone Colorado; or in Boston, where extreme precipitation and sea-level rise produce “100-year floods” with frequency. Migration or “managed retreat” may become the norm among coastal residents. 123.3 million people, or 39 percent of the nation’s population lived in counties directly on the shoreline in 2010, and that percentage is expected to rise to 47 percent by 2020. Migrating inland will be pretty easy for some: sell the house, buy a new one, call the movers. For others, not so much.
Hardly anybody wants to talk about this. Of course they don’t! It’s terrifying, inconvenient, expensive, potentially catastrophic, and all-around depressing as hell.
Good news: the Yale team has identified a critical mass of low-hanging fruit: 51% of Americans who understand that climate change is happening, accept that human activity is the root cause, who are “Alarmed” or “Concerned.” They are waiting to be engaged. They want to do something. But most aren’t sure exactly what to do.
And what would they do?
What does impactful action to address climate change look like?
Change to efficient light-bulbs and appliances, use water carefully, use less plastic, for sure — everyday actions like these will keep your head in the game — and also:
· Vote every time.
· Find out where your 401k is invested.
· Push for swift clean-energy adoption with elected officials, from your utility, at work, in communities, among favorite organizations, celebrities, and alma maters.
In a perfect world, the 51% of Americans who get what’s happening would talk about climate change and discuss solutions. But we don’t. YPCCC and collaborators at George Mason University identified a “spiral of silence” on climate change:
“More than half of those who are interested in global warming or think the issue is important “rarely” or “never” talk about it with family and friends (57% and 54% respectively).”
Maybe we need more, better, and easier ways to have the conversation.
That’s why I’m launching a digital showcase of best practices for climate communications, such as the 7 Climate Visuals principles; and outstanding examples of messaging that moves people to action — images, data, data visualizations, graphs, gifs, headlines, stories, video, audio, posters, t-shirts, meatballs, neckties. Sweeping strategies like #WeAreStillIn and the Consensus Project. Stunning art like Lorenzo Quinn’s hands in Venice and Follow the Leaders.
Whatever works. Our scientists warn that the clock is ticking.
Stay tuned, and please dm me with leads here or at @SarahFRobinson.
Sarah Finnie Robinson is the founding partner at WeSpire and a senior fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Energy at Boston University. Bostonian by birth, she is active on the Boston Harbor Now climate task force. An English major (Princeton B.A., Middlebury M.A.) and reformed litterer with roots in mainstream media (The New Yorker, The Atlantic, iVillage), she invests in large-scale climate solutions and hunts down best practices for communications to solve the challenge of global warming. She blogs on HuffPost, Medium, and mindbodygreen. Off-duty, she tends an organic garden of edible leaves and enjoys a nice glass of wine that was not grown using chemicals.