The climate conversation
You are a High Country News reader, and thus, unlikely to be a subscriber to People magazine. But try as you might to stay above the pop culture fray, you’ve probably heard by now: Princess Kate is pregnant. She craves lavender shortbread. She is not, it turns out, too thin to be pregnant, though the jury of public opinion is still out on whether it’s a bit unseemly for her parents to cash in with their new line of baby shower products.
This week, thankfully, at least one thread in the royal baby storyline took on a serious tone: The prospect of becoming a grandfather has steeled Prince Charles' resolve to beat the drum about climate change. “Now that we will have a grandchild,” the longtime proponent of cutting carbon emissions said in an interview, “it makes it even more obvious to try and make sure we leave them something that isn’t a totally poisoned chalice.” (The British have such a way with words, don't they?)
The prince’s plea is timely, in a sense. There’s something about the turning of the New Year that prompts people to think, ‘Maybe this will be the year we start to take our carbon problem seriously.’ Headlines like this run with abandon: “2013: A Tipping Year for Climate Change?”
The more precise question to ask, though, is whether people will collectively care about climate change any more this year than they did last? Research released this fall concluded that 70 percent of Americans now believe that climate change is a real thing – an encouraging reversal of the recent decline in belief in its reality. “So why,” Bill Moyers recently asked Anthony Leiserowitz, of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, “isn’t the message (that we should do something about it) getting through?”
Leiserowitz, who is one the country’s top authorities on public attitudes about climate change, said that, for one thing, “the volume (of media coverage) has been really low.” Your average citizen only becomes informed about climate change through the media, he explained. And despite blockbuster storms like Sandy, the media is delivering steadily fewer climate stories to the public, according to an analysis by Climate Central. (Other analyses show a slight uptick in coverage, though everyone agrees that overall, climate stories are few and far between. “Two times almost nothing equals not much," one analyst told Columbia Journalism Review.) Add what Leiserowitz calls “a very active disinformation campaign” to that paucity of coverage, and you get general apathy among the general public. “If my perception is that the experts are still arguing over whether the problem exists, as a layperson, my tendency is to say, ‘Well, you know, I’ll let them figure it out. I’ll take this much more seriously once they’ve reached their conclusion.’ ”
The reason politicians aren’t getting the message, Leiserowitz said, is that there’s no real movement goading them to act on the issue. A relatively small group of people – a group Leiserowitz and his colleagues call the “Alarmed” – are really motivated to act to combat global warming. But they've generally been ineffective at creating a larger tent for their movement. “That’s what the political system ultimately responds to. There are of course many great organizations that have been advocating for change for a long time. But it hasn’t been a broad-based citizens movement demanding change. In that situation, a relatively small but well-funded and vocal community that says ‘no’ can absolutely win the day.”
Leiserowitz’s research has shown that Americans’ attitudes about climate change are much more diverse than just the deniers and the alarmists. In between those extremes, are four more groups: “The Concerned,” who believe global warming is happening, but don’t see it as an immediate threat to their personal well-being; “The Cautious,” who kind of believe the climate is changing, but could change their minds; “The Disengaged,” who know little about the issue apart from recognizing the term; “The Doubtful,” who express doubt about the reality of global warming, and don’t believe it poses any direct threat to them. “The challenge,” wrote Andrew Hoffman in the Stanford Social Innovation Review this fall, “is to move the debate away from the loud minorities at the extremes and to engage the majority in (these four) middle (groups).”
Hoffman offered a few strategies for pulling these groups into a more meaningful public debate. Among them, was a suggestion to change the conversation by moving past the data and models. “People must be convinced that something can be done to address it; that the challenge is not too great nor are its impacts preordained.”
This idea is currently being test-driven in Los Angeles, through a website called C-Change L.A. The site is the public's portal into a series of groundbreaking climate models that paint a hyper-local picture of how Southern California may change in coming years. It's part of a regional effort to develop climate adaptation and mitigation strategies, and it translates the science into practical questions: Would increasing the canopy of the urban forest in certain neighborhoods provide a useful cooling effect? Are hospitals equipped for a likely rise in cases of heat exhaustion and respiratory disease? It also outlines a range of public projects that could make the city more livable and buffer it against rising temperatures, such as greenways and permeable streets, which would allow water to seep into underground aquifers.
"Politically, nothing happens without public support, or at least mediating their opposition," Paul Bunje, managing director of the Los Angeles Regional Collaborative for Climate Action and Sustainability, told me when the site debuted last year. "The first step is to talk to people about what's happening to them. Don't talk about floods in Bangladesh. Now, they can point to their neighborhood and say, 'Oh, good lord.' The other element is recognizing your audience. We can just talk to Southern Californians, which means, frankly, that we don't have to worry about climate denialism. We assume people know climate change is real and we talk about what's going to happen in their lifetime."
“This is a real experiment in a sense, based on research saying climate change needs to be communicated in a local way,” Bunje continued. “Polar bears just don’t do it.”
Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.