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Climate policy is important, but the bigger challenge is cultural change

Climate policy is important, but the bigger challenge is cultural change
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The Biden administration’s bold new moves on climate change are setting the U.S. on a new path toward reducing its effects in the coming years. Changing the institutional rules that guide the actions of agencies, corporations, organizations and individuals is vital to reducing carbon pollution. But cultural change is arguably the bigger challenge. Much like the efforts and laws that now make cigarette smoking so abhorrent to many, changing the way individuals perceive and respond to global warming can lead us toward a healthier future. Acting now to reduce pollution is also similar to the principle behind quitting smoking — stopping earlier allows more time for recovery and will limit the worst outcomes down the road.

Audience research, long employed in public health campaigns and by the private sector, can also be used to improve communication about climate change. Understanding what people already think about it, more so than just knowing how different demographic groups respond, can yield insights into key knowledge gaps and misperceptions. Knowing your audience can help you meet them where they are, which can lead to better communication outcomes.

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason Center for Climate Communication developed an audience analysis for climate change communication called “Global Warming’s Six Americas'' framework. Drawing on 12 years of nationally representative surveys including more than 25,000 participants, they identified distinct groups among the public who interpret the issue in different ways. Each has unique climate change beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that fall into six broad categories:

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1) “The Alarmed” (26 percent) are convinced global warming is happening, human-caused, an urgent threat and strongly support climate policies.

2) “The Concerned” (29 percent) also think human-caused global warming is happening, a serious threat, and support climate policies, but they tend to think climate change will harm future generations or people and places far away rather than their own communities or families.

3) “The Cautious” (19 percent) are unsure whether global warming is happening or not, what is causing it and how serious it is.

4) “The Disengaged” (6 percent) know little about global warming as they rarely or never hear about it.

5) “The Doubtful” (12 percent) doubt that global warming is happening. They believe if temperatures are rising, it is due to natural rather than human causes, and thus they do not support policies to address carbon pollution.

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6) “The Dismissive” (8 percent) are certain that global warming is not happening, most endorse conspiracy theories and see the issue as a hoax.

The surveys also asked, “If you could ask an expert on global warming one question, which question would you ask?” They found three types of responses. The Alarmed and Concerned primarily want to know about solutions. Their main question is: “What can I do about climate change?”

The middle segments (the Cautious and Disengaged) want to know “What harm will climate change cause, and why should I care?”

The Doubtful and Dismissive want to know “How do you know global warming is happening and human-caused?”

These results point to different information needs among the American public about climate change. The Alarmed and Concerned want information about solutions and especially solutions that empower them to act. Shifting toward a plant-based diet, purchasing carbon offsets and buying energy efficient appliances or vehicles are all actions that can help stabilize our climate. Joining others already engaged in action is perhaps the most powerful because of the rapid information sharing that can occur through organized networks.

The Cautious and Disengaged need information about why climate change should matter to them and their local communities. They probably don’t realize, for example, that air pollution from burning fossil fuels is already responsible for one in every five deaths globally, and that communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately affected. In fact, there are many ways that we are already paying the costs of burning fossil fuels for energy — we just haven’t been keeping our receipts. Switching to renewable energy can bring benefits to our health and wallets. For example, when an Arkansas school district switched to solar, over $300,000 a year was saved, which helped fund a raise in teacher’s salaries as a result.

The Doubtful and Dismissive may be surprised to learn that the physics behind global warming have been known for over a century, but they will be most open to hearing from people they already trust. Making the link between small-scale and larger-scale actions starts there.

Regardless of which group any individual belongs to, almost all of us underestimate how much Americans worry about this issue. In fact, the number of folks most worried, the Alarmed category, is growing faster than any other group — doubling in size in the past five years. This misperception is damaging because it acts as a barrier to dialogue as people anticipate disagreement or conflict where there is none, leading to what has been called a “spiral of silence.” In reality, the vast majority of Americans want more news and information about climate change.

Sharing resources and information in a way that addresses each group’s fundamental questions is what needs to happen now. One resource that seeks to answer this call to action is Yale Climate Connections — a set of audio stories, articles and videos that provide reliable and accurate information about the causes, impacts and solutions to climate change. When educators, community groups and individuals can find resources that best match the needs of their unique audiences, people across the Six Americas can better connect — and better understand the realities of climate change.

It’s up to us, those who know what’s coming, to better inform ourselves and focus on solutions. We have to learn how to help others in our networks understand key questions and answers about climate change while also communicating with people who need help engaging with the facts. It’s a heavy lift. A whole planet is heavy. But now is the time to act.

Jennifer Marlon is a public voices fellow of the OpEd Project at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and a lecturer in Yale's School of the Environment.