Talking About Climate Change? Not Much

Posted  August 27, 2013 01:26 PM

Globe Correspondent

Pillow talk turns out to be the best motivation for climate action. Many Americans say they are likely to be moved to take action on global warming by their significant other. Or maybe a son or daughter. Or close friends.

But not a politician. Or a preacher. And certainly not social media.

These conclusions come from a study on “How Americans Communicate About Global Warming” released this month by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

photo globes.jpg“It’s easy to come away with the impression that social media is the most important way we communicate,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, who headed the study at the Yale Project. “But it’s still fundamentally about person-to-person, human relationships with our closest people–friends, family, loved-ones.”

The problem with that, Leiserowitz notes, is the study found there is relatively little conversation about climate change within those personal circles– 67 percent of those polled said they “rarely” or “never” talk about the changing environment.

“We just don’t talk about it,” he said in a phone interview from Yale. One reason, he suggested, is that the shrinking media newsrooms of the last decade have produced a sharp drop in environmental coverage. Another reason, he said, is that climate change has been so politicized. “Many people feel constrained. It’s like religion or politics, you don’t want to bring it up at the Thanksgiving dinner because you don’t want to piss off Uncle Bob.”

The Yale Project has been doing regular polling on public attitudes toward the transforming environment since 2008. Often, the group serves up glum news. In their first survey in November 2008, some 71 percent of Americans said they believe global warming is happening. Little more than a year later, that number had plunged to 57 percent.

Even as the scientific evidence has overwhelmingly settled that question, by April 2013 still only 63 percent of Americans said they believe global warming is happening. It’s a majority, yes, but a depressingly small one for those of us in an occupation based on the premise that providing accurate information will result in a knowledgeable electorate. Not to mention how scientists must feel.

The latest analysis by the Yale Project has its share of depressing news, as well: nearly one in five Americans said no one could convince them to take action to reduce global warming. For many of the remainder, the survey—taken of 1,045 Americans in April– confirms the general ineffectiveness of many social institutions to affect personal beliefs. We are, the study suggests, a stubborn people, impervious to outside challenges to our beliefs.

However, a sizeable minority– 27 percent of those polled– said if anyone could convince them to take action on climate change, it would be their significant other. And 21 percent said a son or daughter might have that influence. Some 17 percent said they could be influenced to action by a close friend.

Interestingly, about the only figure outside that close personal circle who might have such influence, according to the survey, would be an environmental leader. Still, the percentage of respondents who said they would be swayed to action by such a leader was only 13 percent. The percentages dropped from there: parents 11 percent, sibling 7 percent, political leader 6 percent, religious leader 5 percent, community leader 4 percent. And apparently almost no one—or at least only 2 percent—would listen to a call for action from their neighbor.

Edward Maibach, a professor of communications at George Mason University in Virginia and one of the authors of the study, said he is encouraged by one finding of the poll. Of those surveyed, 14 percent said they “probably” or “definitely” would be willing to engage in a non-violent civil disobedience such as a sit-in or blockade against a global warming offenders.

“There is much more latent potential out there for Americans to engage in large, non-violent symbolic actions,” Maibach said from Fairfax, Va., drawing a comparison to the Civil Rights marches being celebrated in Washington this week.

Environmental organizers “have only scratched the surface,” he said. “There are many more Americans who could be mobilized.”