28 May 2009: Report

Beyond Abstraction: Moving
the Public on Climate Action

Most Americans believe climate change is a serious problem but are not committed to making the hard choices needed to deal with it. Recent research begins to explain some of the reasons why.

by doug struck

Humans have been wired by evolution to respond to the most immediate threats, ones they can hear or smell or see — like the lions approaching our ancestral watering holes in the Serengeti. So in searching for answers as to why society has been so slow to react to one of the greatest threats facing the planet today — global warming — this deeply ingrained instinct is a good place to start. Climate change just doesn’t offer those kinds of sensory signals — at least not yet — and humans have not felt the need to react, according to researchers.

“Danger brings emotional reactions, dread, a feeling of alarm. Evolution has equipped us with that,” says Elke Weber, director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University. “The threats we face today are not of that type. They are psychologically removed in space and time. So cognitively, we know something needs to be done about climate change, but we don’t have that emotional alarm bell going off.”

Weber is one of a handful of researchers trying to unravel a glaring contradiction: Even though global temperatures are rising, the Arctic ice cap is melting, scientists are offering increasingly urgent warnings about climate change, and polls show Americans acknowledging that the threat of global warming is real, we’re still not doing very much about the problem.

Scientists are exploring new theories about what affects behavior
One problem is the inability to see how our individual decisions will solve a problem created by millions of individuals.
concerning global warming, such as people’s decisions to give up their SUVs, weatherize their houses, or support tougher environmental legislation. This research has moved beyond the old theory of rational action that predicted we would make logical changes in our behavior if we were given the right information about a problem.

“We make decisions in lots of different ways, even when we are trying to be rational,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, head of the Yale Project on Climate Change. “Humans have two ways of processing information: analytical, and experiential.” The analytic system is logical; the experiential system is based on emotions, past experiences, unconscious memory, stories we have heard, and other immeasurable clues.

“These are parallel processing systems, dance partners always interacting with each other,” Leiserowitz says. So while our rational system may tell us to buy a hybrid car that gets great mileage, we may drive away from the car lot with a muscular pickup because we responded to the ads.

Adding to that problem is the inability to see how our individual decisions will solve a problem created by millions of other individual and institutional acts.

“You don’t see carbon dioxide when you turn on the car,” Leiserowitz says. “You don’t smell it, you don’t taste it, and it’s not poisonous. The experiential system is good at responding to something if I can see it and believe it. That allows us to survive in a more natural world. But we are not good at responding to slow, gradual, incremental effects that we can’t see.”

Changing behavior, then, becomes a complicated process. Leiserowitz, working with the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, recently released research findings showing how complicated the task may be.

Their analysis from an opinion poll of environmental attitudes of 2,164 adults identifies six groups, which they call the “Six Americas.” Those groups react to different messages, to different messengers, and in different ways to information on climate change. Leiserowitz argues that moving society on this issue will require a tailored approach to each.

The most proactive group, which his researchers call the “Alarmed,” represent 18 percent of the public. These are people who believe that the threat of global warming is real and already are doing something in their lives to address climate change. The largest group, the “Concerned,” is 33 percent of the public. They also are convinced global warming is a serious problem, but have not done anything about it and do not seek information to do so.

The “Cautious” at 19 percent, the “Disengaged” at 12 percent, and the “Doubtful” at 11 percent, are by steps increasingly less trustful of scientists, environmentalists, and the mainstream media, more reliant on
Research suggests that getting action on climate change will require more than dire stories in the media.
information from friends or family, and more likely to believe the television weatherman, acquaintances, and religious figures when it comes to climate change. Only 7 percent, “the Dismissive,” flatly disbelieve in human-induced climate change and actively work against global warming measures. This group reads newspapers at half the national average and gets its news from commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly.

The breakdown suggests that getting action on climate change will require more than dire stories in the media. Some groups will be more receptive to the same message delivered by Pat Robertson — or the corner barber — than from Al Gore. Some groups will be willing listeners, while others will need the message to be hammered home again and again.

Leiserowitz says the sizeable percentage of those who believe in climate change, whether they have acted or not, should encourage environmentalists. “I don’t think most policy makers realize how much consensus there is” on global warming, he says. “It’s latent, sitting there, waiting to be mobilized.”

More worrisome is the politicization of the issue. In another large-scale study on public attitudes, Barry Rabe — a political scientist and professor of environmental policy at University of Michigan who worked with the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia — found that 83 percent of Democrats believe global warming is happening, while only 53 percent of Republicans do so.

“That really did surprise us,” Rabe said. “No matter how you asked the questions, there wasn’t much diversity by state, age, income, gender. The one that jumped out time after time was partisan affiliation.”

Rabe, like Leiserowitz, believes that support for action on climate change is greater than many politicians believe and that politicians have been needlessly timid about calling on the public to make sacrifices to slow
Politicians have been needlessly timid in calling for public sacrifices to slow global warming.
global warming. For example, rather than make a case to Americans for tough action — including a modest carbon tax — Congress seems intent on watering down carbon cap-and-trade legislation to make it “politically palatable,” he says. And despite a desperate need in many states for revenue, “they won’t use the ‘T’ word” and raise gasoline taxes that would generate funds and cut driving, Rabe notes.

“Most of what has been enacted is really not asking much in the way of behavioral changes, or would cost (people) much,” he says. While many state leaders have moved more aggressively, national leaders have been “timid, in the sense of not really pushing Americans to confront the complexity of all of this and the possible transitions that may have to be made.”

For example, he asks, “At what point can we speak with more transparency about the whole question of energy transformation? For any political leader who really wants to take the lead on the issue, there is tremendous reluctance to be very specific about price ramifications.”

Some of Barack Obama’s top appointees, such as Energy Secretary Steven Chu and economic advisor Lawrence Summers, have written about the need for carbon pricing, but have not pushed it aggressively in Washington, Rabe notes. Even good ideas such as basing car insurance or state vehicle registration fees on miles driven gets few advocates willing to espouse a sensible — yet unpopular — idea.

Anthony Patt, who studies decision-making and environmental policy at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, believes our language has not been specific enough. Too much information is indistinct and vague about solutions, he says. He has worked to change environmental policies in developing countries where there are too few information sources. But the same lessons apply to developed countries with an information overload, he says.

“The information is not in a form that people quite trust, or understand, or maybe they see contradictory information,” he says. In Africa, for example, farmers need to know what irrigation practices would help conserve water. In Europe, however, the problem is “an inability to find the right information. It was confusing for people to decide if it’s even worth their time to worry about global warming.”

Patt contends that changes in behavior come when people are given information about exactly what they can do to fix the problem. He
The message has to come clearly from a source who has moral authority.
suggests, for example, creating the energy equivalent of the agricultural extension service, which could advise consumers and businesses on practical ways to save energy, just as the agriculture service advises farmers on the best way to grow crops. Putting a price on the carbon consequences of our choices also makes those decisions much clearer, he says.

And “the message has to come clearly from a source that has moral authority,” says Columbia’s Weber. “In Europe, that might be the Green Party, for example. Here, it could be political leadership, or it could be cultural. It could be evangelical churches, reminding their congregants that as Christians, they have a stewardship of the earth. What would Jesus drive? Turns out it’s not an SUV.”

Weber believes that our behavior toward the environment may well change as a result of messages from a multitude of sources. In addition to following personal motivations, she says, individuals adapt their choices to the rules and norms of society. People are affected by what their neighbors drive, what their family thinks, what a television personality says about global warming, advertising, the attitudes of other communities and groups, and, of course, what laws are passed.

“After awhile, these things add up, and changes happen incrementally,” Weber says. “In the last ten years we have seen tremendous changes in attitude toward climate change. By changing attitudes, I think we will see changes in how people react.”

But that will require overcoming some very basic impulses, she acknowledges.

“People are very unwilling to sacrifice,” she says. They base many decisions on the immediate cost. “It hurts us a lot to give up whatever we think we are due, such as our standard of living,” Weber notes. Or, she says, we decide based on emotion: “If something feels good, like impulse shopping, we do it. Emotions are a strong motivator. And technical risks like climate change don’t trigger those emotions.”

Still, Weber believes that a consistent message about a genuine threat — coupled with social pressure and the right economic carrots and sticks — can eventually change people’s behavior.

“Society,” says Weber, “is a way of overcoming the 2-year-olds in all of us.”

POSTED ON 28 May 2009 IN Climate Climate Oceans Policy & Politics Antarctica and the Arctic North America 


So one concept might be to say that because climate change is filling us with the dread of terrible losses in our beautiful world, and because this despair is not helpful, we will make the great sustainable transition fun. Yes fun, including the fun of "right relationship."

For example, we could use all the national affection for railroads and model railroads and put our nation back on track. We will use the strength and beauty of old style passenger streamliners and classic streetcars. We can use all the interest in our nautical heritage and envision building great sailing ships for sail training, travel and transport. We can encourage rebuilding of center cities through the beauty of historic preservation and "smart development." We can promote sustainable family farming that may wish to use the draught power of animals like days of old. We can install rooftop solar coast to coast.

We can re-envision ourselves via the best of heritage design, sustainable techniques and modern capabilities.
Posted by James Newberry on 28 May 2009

This is such a good article. It stimulates the curiosity of the reader, which is important in motivating response and spreading information.

There are many reasons people don't understand the impact dangerous climate change will have on their lives. Not mentioned in this article are the increasing number of climate change denier blogs and articles, deliberately written to confuse the public. There's a profit motive behind this, of course.

Also not mentioned is the reluctance of many large environmental organizations to speak out honestly and forcibly about the threat we face. They even tend sometimes to prevaricate, as by telling us we can save the polar bears by making them an endangered species. Of course this isn't true; the summer Arctic sea ice will soon be gone. By using the polar bear, basically as a fund-raising tool, the environmental organization loses credibility.

Environmental organizations tell us they don't want to frighten people. What they really mean, if they would face up to it, is they don't want to frighten their supportive members, who might leave them for a more feel-good group.

Fear for one's survival is a powerful motivator. In 2002 I read for the first time that the Arctic sea ice could disappear by 2050 (That was then). I was shocked. My grandchildren will be alive when this happens, I thought. I started in to work to prevent runaway global warming then, and I've been at it ever since. What gives me great optimism is to see there are more and more people who share my concern.
Posted by Dorothy on 29 May 2009

Spot-on article. The situation we're in now is very similar to state of the nation prior to entering WWII. It took an event like Pearl Harbor to mobilize the country. Unfortunately it seems that only an environmental catastrophe of tragic dimensions will spark the massive change necessary, and then it may be too late to avoid losses of a global scale.
Posted by Michael A. Scott on 29 May 2009

We have had cheap fossil fuels too long. Most Americans have never felt any type of deprivation. We've grown too used to our conveniences made possible by cheap fossil fuels.

The catastrophe of 911 should have mobilized us as did Pearl Harbor. The first energy crisis in 1972 should have given us a clue. I remember that era well and everyone felt that the oil companies were responsible for gasoline shortages. In more recent times the Reagan and the Cheney administrations, (yes, you heard me correctly) made certain that we turned away from any rational discussion about our future in a post fossil fuel world. Check out the book Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, by Barton Gellman.

There are also too many voices who stand to benefit from business as usual, as manifested in the recent annual meeting of EXXON in Dallas, Texas, at which it was stated by company officials that environmental science was not "settled."

Our only hope is in educating our young people, but the dissenters make even that difficult.

For more of my views see my blog at
Posted by Phillip Greene on 29 May 2009

This is a fascinating debate that has recurred again and again. How to mobilize the public to act themselves, to influence their peers to act and to insist that the political institutions goveerning the name of the public to take action as well.
Frequently the largest impediment is the large corporation to hold the keys to everything for individuals, the public and government.

Paul Hawken suggested that corporation leaders were more likely to make environmental related changes if they had teenage and university aged daughters. What our daughters think matters and we do things. Perhaps this is worth exploring.
Posted by Bruce Miller on 29 May 2009

There is also the power of a major economic downturn that can change peoples behaviors very fast. Once the behavior changes it becomes the new norm. I think that spiritual and moral issues can make people act long before a major disasters strikes. I am more hopeful now then I was a few years ago. Paul Hawken's book Blessed Unrest is very optimistic on this subject.
Posted by Chris Pratt on 01 Jun 2009

There is no anthropogenic warming. Natural warming did occur but it did not start until the super El Nino of 1998 showed up. That El Nino was out of sequence for normal ENSO oscillations and was caused by Indian Ocean overflow. The energy to sustain the twenty-first century high is what was left over from it but now both are gone and we are into a La Nina cooling that started in 2007 and bottomed out in 2008. Carbon dioxide theory is totally incapable of explaining any of this. The ENSO oscillations — alternating El Nino and La Nina phases — will now control our climate and the fantasy of carbon-dioxide caused global warming is over. Check me out on ICECAP.
Posted by Arno Arrak on 06 Jun 2009

> the energy equivalent of the agricultural extension service

That would be (in part) sierraclubgreenhome.com - see the recent Grist article about it.

But also see Alex Steffen's article "Don't Just Be the Change, Mass-Produce It" (at bit.ly/ckQBJ ) - expecting voluntary action to solve this is like spitting at a forest fire

> "The information is not in a form that people quite trust, or understand, or maybe they see contradictory information" (- Patt)

"maybe"? is it possible to live in the U.S. and *not* see contradictory information? (why wasn't the climate disinformation effort mentioned in this post? )

> Patt contends that changes in behavior come when people are given information about exactly what they can do to fix the problem.

This is relevant:
"Someone asked [Dr. James Hansen] what the most important thing to do is, what can we personally do to help stabilize climate, to 'answer the call to action'--what is the most important lifestyle change?
Hansen's answer was unequivocal. Take part in the political process. Help make our democracy real. Hold our candidates accountable." - bit.ly/ijf0X

Posted by Anna Haynes on 06 Jun 2009

The article by Douglas Struck offers a wideranging and imaginative collection of theories about why Americans are not reacting with enough concern about global warming.

I suggest that other dimensions of the problem might emerge if the author looked at public opinion in leading EU nations, like Sweden and Germany. There you would probably find greater commitment and also consistency between intellectual understanding and action.

U.S. environmentalists would probably explain the different attitude by blaming basically benighted ideas in the business community, Republicans, and conservatives - since these groups show the greatest scepticism or even opposition to campaigns against global warming.

I returned to academia from a career as a federal earth and environmental scientist to track the origin of our internal conflicts over environmental policy. By now this theme has probably gone stale and few will see this post, but for the record I found a very different picture - much less agreeable to many academic scholars, than the ones mentioned in Struck.

In a recently released book "The Conflict over Environmental Regulation in the United States" (Springer, 2009)

I point out that in the early post World War II period new research support policies created tendencies for semi isolation of the American academic research community from larger American society. Initially developed in the natural sciences through basic research grants controlled by peer scientists, the system expanded in the 1960s to encompass social sciences and other fields.

This marked a radical departure from the traditional role of the American University. I.e. a large fraction of the academic community became engaged in disciplinary research and publication that was isolated from mainstream society[it might study societal issues but results were communicated almost solely within peer groups]

There's much more to it than that, but let's get back to global climate change. The American academic community has taken up global climate change in a more theoretical and ideological way than one finds typical in Europe. My book includes an interview (in Hamburg) with a German Greenpeace leader for energy policy. He visited his American counterparts in New York. At one point he asked his American colleague to arrange a meeting with oil company executives. He told me that the American replied: "Oh, we don't talk to THOSE people"!

In short, the European style - far more successful than ours - has been to dialogue and explore solutions. Ours leans more to monologue and assert solutions.

Regards FTM
Posted by Frank T. Manheim on 17 Jul 2009

America has the tendency of leading the world ever since the 1st World War. But now American leadership has to shift from war to humanity. We can see a silver lining as the present president Obama comes from the grassroots level.

We cannot go back to the strength and beauty of the old style passenger stream-liners and classic streetcars nor can we use all the interest in our nautical heritage and envision building great sailing ships for sail training, travel and transport. We can promote sustainable family farming; install rooftop solar, promote other renewable energy like hydro power, wind power, bio diesel, methane and hundreds of other renewable energy projects can be designed.

Now Obama should overcome the needlessly timid tendency of general politicians in calling for public sacrifices to slow global warming, as the Research suggests that getting action on climate change will require more than dire stories in the media.

And also a lesson can be learnt from the oblivion Hindu spiritual leaders, who have taught to worship The Sun, the Holy (pure, unpolluted) Rivers and important vegetation like Tulasi and Peepal trees.

Posted by Padam Pande on 31 Oct 2009

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Doug Struck has been a foreign and national correspondent reporting from six continents and 50 states, a Harvard Nieman fellow and Pulitzer Prize finalist. At The Washington Post, he specialized in global warming issues in assignments ranging from the Northwest Passage and Greenland to melting glaciers on the Andes Mountains. He now freelances and teaches journalism at Boston University. In a recent article for Yale Environment 360, Struck wrote about the environmental legacy of the Exxon Valdez spill.



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