How Do We Talk about Climate Change?

I am not the average American.

It isn't that I needed the most recent report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication to tell me that. But the results of their survey of how Americans communicate about climate change adds to the evidence.

Josh and his baby rally against climate change in Richmond, CAFor instance, here I am blogging about climate change, but the researchers found that only about 6% of Americans have even left a comment on a blog or newspaper story about climate change. On and off the NCSE clock, I also tweet about climate change, speak to newspaper and radio reporters, ask people to sign petitions, and speak about climate change. By contrast, in the last year, only 7% of Americans have shared information on climate change via social media, 5% contacted newspapers and 4% contacted radio shows to discuss climate change, 4% asked others to sign a petition on climate change, and 3% have given a speech about it. They didn't ask how many Americans have attended a public rally or protest, but I'd guess the numbers would be even lower. The photo at the right shows me and my 15-month-old at the second climate change rally he's attended in the last year (neither of us were there on NCSE's behalf).

Indeed, only one American in three (33%) say they've spoken with friends or family "often" or "occasionally" about climate change. That number has been hovering between 35% and 31%, within the surveys' margins of error, since 2010. On the other hand, three of four people who personally experienced an extreme weather event spoke about it with friends, and two in three spoke about it by phone (but fewer than one in five spoke about it by social media). A majority reported experiencing such extreme events, and climate change makes such events more common.

One in ten have called, emailed, or written to government officials in the last year, the vast majority (75%) calling for action to limit climate change. Granted, 16% told the researchers that they intend to contact government officials in the coming year, but nearly twice as many people have declared their intention to contact officials as have actually done so in each of these researchers' surveys back to 2008. Again, I'm in the minority.

How, then, can we encourage people to be more active in speaking about climate change? Only 17% of people said that "no one" could convince them to take action on climate change. Over one in 4 said than their significant other was most likely to convince them, a bit over one in five said their son or daughter were most likely, one in six said a close friend was most likely to convince them. One in ten named their parents, one in twelve chose a sibling.  Environmental leaders (13%) were also potentially important influences, with few people selecting political leaders (6%), religious leaders (5%), community leaders (4%), and neighbors (2%). That doesn't mean we shouldn't speak to our neighbors, nor that our political, religious, and community leaders shouldn't speak about the challenges climate change is already causing our nation and our communities. But we'd do best to start by talking to our friends and especially our households, our wives and husbands and girlfriends and boyfriends and parents.  They are ready to listen to us.

If asked by someone they "like and respect," most Americans say they would take actions to limit climate change.  Almost half said they would sign a petition (like the ones NCSE posts in our Taking Action section). Nearly a third said they would ask a friend to sign a petition, and more said they would discuss climate change at a neighborhood meeting, attend a public presentation on climate change, attend a town hall meeting or rally, or sign a pledge to vote only for candidates who share their views on climate change. Many say they would financially support or volunteer with an organization working on climate change (and, <ahem> they can do so here). People were less likely to take actions requiring greater time or effort, but one in four would support an organization engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience, and one in eight say they are prepared to take such actions themselves.

I've thought a lot about those last results this week, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the "I Have A Dream" speech. That rally led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.  It built on a decade and more of civil disobedience, and of quiet conversations among families, friends, and neighbors, which shifted people in favor of action.  But in the end, it's also worth remembering that the people who rallied in Washington 50 years ago weren't average Americans, either. The crowd was overwhelmingly African American, and drew heavily on members of organized labor as well. But regardless of whether they were a perfect cross-section of the nation, their voices resonated across the land, and compelled action from political leaders.

The same has happened with any great social movement, and the climate movement is building its strength.

Where do you fall out relative to these results? Who do you talk to about climate change? Which policymakers have you contacted? Which of your friends, neighbors, and family members are you leaning on?

Are you atypical like me? Either way, leave a comment and let us know!

Josh Rosenau
Short Bio

Josh Rosenau is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.

We can't afford to lose any time when it comes to the future of science education.

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