Earlier this month, the news was filled with stories about recent studies that showed the growing, and often devastating, impacts of climate change – from an increase in malaria cases in Africa and South America to heavier losses in global crop yields to spikes in crime.
Yet, Americans don’t seem to be overly concerned. A new Gallup survey looking at the degree Americans worry about different issues found that only 24 percent of Americans worry a great deal about climate change. Fifty-one percent of them worry about it very little or not at all.
So what do you think when you read that?
I know it’s very easy to get upset about these results or wonder if this is that surprising given the American record so far on climate change, but if you leave these emotions aside for a minute you can actually find some interesting lessons in this survey that might even give us a clue about the way to change these results.
1. Learn how the budget deficit is framed
Behavioral economist Dr. Dan Ariely explains it very clearly – if we had to design a problem that would maximize human apathy, we would come up with climate change. “Think about all the elements,” he says, “long in the future, will happen to other people first, we don’t see [it] progressing, we don’t see anybody suffering and anything we would do is a drop in the bucket.”
It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Interestingly, the elements Ariely describes seem to apply also to the federal budget deficit. It’s a long-term issue, it’s difficult to see actual progress, you don’t really see anyone suffering now because of the debt (unless you count people who receive less support in food stamps), poor people will feel it first and there’s nothing much you can do to solve it.
So how come this issue (“government spending and the budget deficit”) got to second place on Gallop’s list, with 58 percent worrying great deal about it, only one point less than the issue that came in first (the economy)?
One explanation is that the difference is due to the way these issues are framed in the public discourse. Climate change has been framed as a long-term problem with questionable and unproven impacts, while the budget deficit has been framed as a big and urgent problem, which will lead us to “a future in which we’re impoverished by the need to pay back money we’ve been borrowing,” as Paul Krugman describes it.
So the problem with climate change is not necessarily about the fact that we are not wired to worry over long-term issues (although this is probably true), but that it is poorly framed. Maybe taking a look at the playbook of those promoting the budget deficit as an urgent matter that we should all be worried about right now will help figuring out how to reframe climate change.
2. “Climate change” has become a tainted concept
How else can you explain the fact that 66 percent of the respondents say they worry either a great deal (31 percent) or a fair amount (35 percent) about the quality of the environment while only 49 percent worry similarly about climate change (24 percent and 25 percent respectively).
The only explanation I have, other than that many respondents watched Johan Rockstrom’s TED talk about planetary boundaries and are worried about the health of other systems, is that the efforts to question the scientific basis of climate change and the integrity of the people leading the fight against it have succeeded.
The result is that we have “the environment” as a more neutral concept that a larger number of people feel is worthy enough to worry about, and “climate change/global warming” that apparently get some people who worry about the environment uncomfortable enough to scale down their concerns about it or not worry at all.
3. People don’t connect the dots between climate change and other problems
When you look at the list of problems that people worry about more than climate change it is apparent that part of the problem is that people don’t connect the dots between climate change and its impacts on many issues they seem to worry much more about. The economy is one thing, but the list goes on to include the availability and affordability of energy, hunger and even crime and violence.
It’s clear that for many people communicating the concept of climate change just as a huge problem isn’t effective. The “one explanation for all” mechanism to fight climate change, like the one we saw on An Inconvenient Truth, just doesn’t work anymore. There’s a need now to address different audiences with different arguments in accordance with the issues they’re more worried about.
It is worth mentioning though that we should be careful of not characterizing climate change as the meta-problem responsible for every major problem in the world – people just won’t buy it.
4. Democrats are also part of the problem
You might not be too surprised to hear that only 10 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners worry about climate change according to the survey, but it might be surprising that only 36 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners do so.
These figures mean the Democrats are part of the problem as much as the Republicans are. It’s a different scale comparing to Republicans, but it is still worthwhile noting that Democrats are also influenced from an environment where climate change is mostly on the defense.
It would be only fair to mention that last week 28 U.S. Democratic senators “held an all-night ‘talkathon’ Monday to call attention to climate change.” This is great, but these senators (and their fellow Democrats on the Hill) will need to have many more sleepless nights if they really want to see a change in the way climate change is perceived in general and in the Democratic camp in particular.
Image credit: Marian Gonzalez, Flickr Creative Commons
Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School of Design. You can follow Raz on Twitter.