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Climate Change in the American Mind

Anthony Leiserowitz
Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Lecture Summary

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Does climate change exist? Will it affect me? Can I do anything to affect the outcome? According to Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, your responses to these questions are largely dictated by who you are and what your personal belief system is.

Speaking for Metcalf Institute at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography on June 8, 2012, Leiserowitz explained that their research focuses on understanding what influences the initial personal reaction to the global issue of climate change and how to target a broader public response. Leiserowitz himself studies the psychological, cultural, and political factors that influence people’s behavior towards environmental changes and their attitudes towards public policy.

Following a peak in public concern about climate change in 2008, only a third of Americans now think that climate change is actually even happening. The percentage of people who classified themselves as worried about climate change has decreased 11% since 2008. Many people display a gap between knowing that climate change exists and being concern that it might affect them personally. According to Leiserowitz, the news media has aided this disconnection by describing climate change as a strictly “environmental” story, showing photos of melting icebergs and stranded polar bears, which make it difficult for the general public to see the personal connection.

Likewise, his data show that many people view climate change impacts as far into the future or affecting only polar environments. But predictions by climate scientists regarding how one’s physical surroundings will be altered — for example, greater flooding in some regions, prolonged droughts in others, human health risks such as outbreaks of Malaria or severe weather anomalies, and increasing extreme weather — argue for prompt action to address climate change. However, news about the status of financial markets, terrorism, social security, unemployment, and the collapse of the housing market have displaced the focus from Americans’ earlier responses to global warming.

Leiserowitz has found that many individuals are waiting for scientists to agree on the subject of global climate change before they really have to worry about it. In spite of dramatic weather events in the past several years, news coverage of climate change issues declined 25% percent between 2008 and 2012. Since 2006 when the public was the most alarmed about the possibilities of climate change having catastrophic effects, the number of people who believe in the effects of climate change has dropped 16%. Why? News is fragmented and polarizing, he argued, and those who argue against the existence of climate change speak methodically and repeatedly.

Leiserowitz has developed a paradigm in the report he co-authored, “Global Warming’s Six Americas,” that breaks the American public into six groups regarding responses to climate change. The respondent pools are described as: alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful or dismissive. He explained that scientists should consider these six audiences for their messages on global change. He also offered several suggestions for how to target people in the disengaged and doubtful categories: news coverage needs to be more nuanced in its approach to create a broader audience and bring more shareholders to the table and recycling and compliance with regulatory restrictions need to be easy or people will make unsustainable choices.

Four in ten people on the planet haven’t heard of climate change. This is why, Leiserowitz concluded, it is crucial to find policies that address this global change in a way that will garner support from the different subsets of the population. Once we recognize the informational needs of different groups we can bring this global issue out of the environmental arena and into a much broader one for group discussion and redress.

Anthony Leiserowitz is director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and a research scientist at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. He is also a principal investigator at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University. He is a widely recognized expert on American and international public opinion on global warming, including public perception of climate change risks, support and opposition for climate policies, and willingness to make individual behavioral change. His research investigates the psychological, cultural, political, and geographic factors that drive public environmental perception and behavior. He has conducted survey, experimental, and field research at scales ranging from the global to the local, including international studies, the United States, individual states (Alaska and Florida), municipalities (New York City), and with the Inupiaq Eskimo of Northwest Alaska. Leiserowitz also recently conducted the first empirical assessment of worldwide public values, attitudes, and behaviors regarding global sustainability, including environmental protection, economic growth, and human development. He has served as a consultant to the John F. Kennedy School of Government (Harvard University), the United Nations Development Program, the Gallup World Poll, the Global Roundtable on Climate Change at the Earth Institute (Columbia University), and the World Economic Forum.

Lecture summary prepared by Donna Doyle.