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Beyond abstraction: moving the public on climate action

By Doug Struck - posted Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Most believe climate change is a serious problem but are not committed to making the hard choices needed to deal with it.

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 behaviour concerning global warming, such as people’s decisions to give up their SUVs, weatherise 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 behaviour 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 behaviour, 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 per cent 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 per cent 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.

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First published in Yale Environment 360 on May 28, 2009.

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About the Author

Doug Struck covered the Valdez oil spill for the Baltimore Sun and has reported frequently from the Arctic for The Washington Post during 30 years as a journalist. He 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 specialised 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.

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