Does anybody really care about this stuff outside of the "green" community? I know I sure don't.
Asked by Rick Abell, MS '78, Steamboat Springs, Colo.
We've just explored a little into the question of "who cares." But that's left me wondering about a few more things: why does it matter whether you, and others, care about creating a sustainable civilization and curbing global warming? We're going to assume here that you understand the scientific facts behind climate change and do believe it's happening, but that caring means being motivated enough to change something in your own life. Why don't more people care? Does it really make a difference if they do—and if so, how do we convince more people to care?
Why it Matters
Based on the 2008 surveys, "Climate Change in the American Mind" reports this surprising figure: 92 percent of people think that the United States should take steps to reduce global warming. I'm sure that there's a huge variation in exactly what people feel these steps should be (and probably also in why they should be taken), but given that only 51 percent of people fell into the "alarmed" or "concerned" groups in that year's "Global Warming's Six Americas" report, this statistic seems to prove the "easier said than done" phenomenon.
Unfortunately, change won't happen if there are too few people who care enough to be the doers. I think one of the reasons that we have relatively few doers actively working to prevent climate change is that it is hard to figure out where to start. But in his paper "Harnessing Individual Behavior to Address Climate Change: Options of Congress," John Derbach shows two ways that individuals can direct change, through two possible roles: as citizens and as consumers.
In regards to the first possible role, Derbach explains that citizens who participate in the government can act as a counterweight to corporate interests. Many corporations feel they are likely to be negatively affected by steps to reduce global warming, at least in the short term, and they, in turn, can have a strong influence on whether certain legislation will pass. But by getting involved, citizens can work against this influence and help to increase the likelihood of passing climate-change legislation. You can become an involved citizen by voting for politicians who present agendas to lessen climate change, writing to or calling your state representatives, or even sharing your opinion by writing an op-ed piece for your local paper.
As for our power as consumers, he writes, "engaging individuals as consumers is tantamount to harnessing the power of the market." A capitalist framework gives consumers the leverage to shape the market. We have the luxury to let the world know which goods and services are important to us, and which ones we'd rather not encourage. What's more, Derbach reports that individuals have direct control over about one-third of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. With the United States responsible for about 25 percent of global energy consumption, a one-third portion of the associated greenhouse gas emissions is quite significant. Caring enough to pay attention to the emissions associated with what you buy, or don't buy, can indeed have an impact.
Why More People Don't Care
I'm going to venture the guess that you're familiar with some of the reasons why one might care about stopping climate change. Rising sea levels, more intense heat waves, and decreased water resources are just a few examples of projected consequences that will affect ecological communities and people in ways scientists are still trying to fully understand. If the risks are so high, why don't more people care?
Columbia University's Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) is exploring this question, and they bring up quite a few salient points in their publication The Psychology of Climate Change Communication. One of them is the concept of the "finite pool of worry," which I briefly touched on in the essential answer. Basically, people have a limited capacity for worrying, and a lot of this is consumed, quite understandably, by personal problems. Larger issues, such as the weakened economy and ongoing war are certainly enough to fill in any remaining brain space. Unfortunately, climate change is often at the very bottom of peoples' lists of things to worry about, because it feels removed from what they are experiencing right now. CRED says, "Most U.S. residents do not personally experience effects that are drastic enough on a regular basis to alarm them about climate change." This boils down to the fact that individuals do not perceive as great a risk for events that will occur in the future or for problems that are geographically distant or dispersed. There's a perceived vagueness about climate change that keeps it from migrating to the top of our to-do lists—despite the fact that real, damaging impacts are already underway.
Lastly, by and large our climate-change information comes from scientists who rely completely on analytical reasoning. However, according to "Psychology and Global Climate Change," a report from the American Psychological Association, risk perception is more strongly influenced by emotions than by our analytical side. In other words, while analytical reasoning is the right tool for studying climate risks, it tends to fall short when it comes to motivating people—to making them care—unless it's working in parallel with an emotional appeal.
Convincing More People to Care
This was the ultimate goal of the publication of The Psychology of Climate Change Communication. Their basic message is that "in order for science information to be fully absorbed by audiences it must be actively communicated with appropriate language, metaphor, and analogy; combined with narrative storytelling; made vivid through visual imagery and experiential scenarios; balanced with scientific information; and delivered by trusted messengers in group settings." You can read a past SAGE column on encouraging people to adopt more environmentally conscious behaviors.
Here are a few of their key points about communicating climate change:
Work around confirmation biases and mental modes—People absorb information more easily if it is consistent with what they already know or think. You can work around this by finding out what misconceptions they may have and then addressing those specifically.
Framing—Package the information you wish to convey in a way that will make it the most personal and relatable. This can be done through using approachable language and focusing on the aspects of climate change that will most directly affect your audience. For example, emphasize the changes they can expect in their local environment rather than broader scale issues.
Beware of overuse of emotional appeals—Emotional appeal may invoke an immediate response, but it is likely that it will be short-lived. Too much drama can also lead to emotional numbing . . . beyond a certain threshold of emotional turmoil, the prospect of climate change may feel too big and daunting to do anything about. Instead, emphasize what they can do and that, if we act now, we still have time to make a difference.
Originally published in Stanford Magazine's September/ October SAGE column: