Inspiring Action on Climate

One issue that drives me to action is climate change. For those on board with the matter, it seems a no-brainer that we should be doing everything we can to reduce the levels of carbon in our atmosphere. But this kind of action is clearly not happening, even among those who understand that climate change is one of the most serious issues of our time. For nonprofits working on climate issues, this can be more than frustrating.

Climate change (a.k.a. global warming) has been firmly established as a global problem with far-ranging and severe consequences such as widespread drought, floods, extreme weather, species extinction, sea level rise, breakdown of civil infrastructure, and more. The fact of anthropogenic climate change is not in doubt; a study examining almost 12,000 peer-reviewed abstracts over 20 years found that over 97% of studies that took a position agreed that climate change is caused by human activity.[i]

However, the issue has received lukewarm support from those able to have an effect on the problem, such as the general public and governments. A Gallup poll conducted in spring 2014 showed that only 33% of Americans surveyed view climate change as a cause of serious concern, placing climate change at the bottom of a list of environmental concerns.

Given the seriousness of the matter and the fluctuation in belief in the issue, researchers have been motivated to explore why people have not taken more actions to curb climate change on their own. Here are some examples of what they have found.

Barriers to participation include:

  1. Skepticism due to lack of trust in scientific and government institutions[ii]
  2. Fatalism due to a sense that the problem has moved beyond human control[iii]
  3. A concerted effort by an elite few to undermine scientific consensus[iv]
  4. A perception that it’s a distant abstraction, with effects such as sea level rise too far in the future to worry about[v]

So what works? Personal relevance and retrievability bias. Let me explain.

Personal relevance. As we all have likely experienced, we become more influenced by issues when those concerns seem personally relevant. Individuals find it easier to assess large problems when they can relate them to their own experiences. This has panned out in research on climate change communication. Americans with direct experience of the effects of global warming have increased perceptions of risk, worry, and motivation.[vi] The weather people experience, particularly hot weather even when not scientifically attributable to climate change, has been shown to directly impact their belief in climate change.[vii]

Retrievability bias. Recent experiences in people’s minds tend to overshadow other judgments.[viii] People assume that the more instances of something they can retrieve from memory, the more frequently that thing will occur. Recentness, familiarity, and salience all influence how easily an instance can be retrieved.

Extreme weather may just present the perfect inroad to helping people understand that climate change is real and happening now. While it is inaccurate to directly equate weather with climate, we can use these opportunities to point out that the occurrence of these events is climbing due to climate change. (For a fun illustration on the difference between weather and climate, see Climate Adam’s recent video:

Extreme weather like Hurricane Patricia, the wildfires and drought in the west, and a particularly potent El Nino are opportunities for people to connect to how climate change is impacting them or someone they know right now with obvious consequences.

As one group of experts says, “Place-based climate change education strategies—which highlight the local impacts of climate change in a manner that can be experienced by people with their senses—hold considerable potential to help large numbers of Americans come to understand the issue in a manner more consistent with the state-of-the-science.”[ix]

A lot of research is currently being conducted to determine the best ways to influence action on climate change. Until we know more, using extreme weather to help people understand the personal impact of climate change is a great place to start.

Image source: Smith

[i] Cook, J., Nuccitelli, D., Green, S. A., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R., … Skuce, A. (2013). Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental Research Letters, 8(2), 024024.

[ii] Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Psychologist, 66(4), 290–302.

[iii] Lorenzoni, I., Nicholson-Cole, S., & Whitmarsh, L. (2007). Barriers perceived to engaging with climate change among the UK public and their policy implications. Global Environmental Change, 17(3–4), 445–459.

[iv] Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M. (2010). Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming (Reprint edition). New York: Bloomsbury Press.

[v] Myers, T. A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Akerlof, K., & Leiserowitz, A. A. (2013). The relationship between personal experience and belief in the reality of global warming. Nature Climate Change, 3(4), 343–347.

[vi] Myers.

[vii] Zaval, L., Keenan, E. A., Johnson, E. J., & Weber, E. U. (2014). How warm days increase belief in global warming. Nature Climate Change, 4(2), 143–147.

[viii] Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185(4157), 1124–1131.

[ix] Myers, p. 345.