Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Random Samples with Anthony Leiserowitz

Anthony Leiserowitz is Director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and a Senior Research Scientist at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is an expert on public climate change beliefs, attitudes, policy preferences, and behavior, and the psychological, cultural, and political factors that influence them. He conducts research at the global, national, and local scales, including many studies of the American public. He also conducted the first global study of public values, attitudes, and behaviors regarding sustainable development and has published more than 200 scientific articles, chapters, and reports. He has served as a consultant to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, the United Nations Development Program, the Gallup World Poll, and the World Economic Forum. He is a recipient of a Mitofsky Innovator Award from the American Association of Public Opinion Research. He is also the host of Climate Connections, a daily radio program broadcast on more than 500 stations and frequencies nationwide.

We spoke with Leiserowitz recently about his work at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication—a recipient of NCSE’s Friend of the Planet Award—and as one of a group of advisors to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s recently unveiled Deep Time exhibit. The exhibit focuses on the evolution of life, with an emphasis on how organisms have interacted with each other over time, and how they’ve interacted with Earth and its climate.

Paul Oh: The namesake donor of the Deep Time exhibit was the late David H. Koch, who funded not only scientific exhibitions at institutions like the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History but also organizations promoting climate change denial. Did you find that problematic?

Anthony Leiserowitz: My first priority—and I think this was true for all the scientific advisors—was making sure there was a tall, wide, and impermeable firewall between the source of the funding and the exhibit’s content. I think everybody involved was deeply, and rightfully, concerned about that and didn’t want to be associated with something that tried to downplay climate change or the human impact on the planet. The leadership of the Smithsonian made it clear that wasn’t going to be the case. That was step one: we all needed to be confident that this exhibit was going to follow the science.

PO: And what were you hoping to see?

AL: One thing I encouraged the museum to do was to try to help visitors engage with the exhibit on a more individual and personalized level and not tell the story of the Anthropocene solely through data and scientific abstractions. One of the most powerful means to engage people is by sharing the personal stories of people experiencing the impacts of global environmental change and, even more importantly, people that are taking action within their own lives to make a difference. I also encouraged the museum to include diverse voices. More than just scientists, they should represent a variety of people from different walks of life, especially because the Smithsonian attracts so many visitors from all over the US and around the world. My sense is from the video stories embedded in the exhibit that the museum did manage to include a lot of personal narratives and diversity even within the confines and constraints of a single exhibit. I also encouraged the Smithsonian not to focus solely on a narrative of doom and gloom. Of course it’s important that visitors understand what humans have done and are continuing to do to the planet. At the same time, it’s vitally important for visitors to understand that we can solve these problems, that we have the capacity right now to address these issues. Moreover, that we get to choose. Human beings are the authors of our own history and we have a lot of unwritten pages in the book of human history ahead of us. We have the opportunity to create the future we actually want to live in.

We have the opportunity to create the future we actually want to live in.

PO: Let’s turn to your work as Director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. What surprises you most about the data you've collected over time?

AL: Right now, one of the most important things we’re seeing is around the 2020 election. We’ve been tracking the importance of climate change as a voting issue for Americans as a whole, but more specifically within each political party. And what we’ve seen is that climate change is moving up the ranks of the most important national issues for voters. For years, climate change has been at the bottom of most issue priority rankings. What we’ve found in our most recent study is that global warming is now number 17 among registered voters—not a top-tier issue, but higher than in years past. Among conservative Republicans, global warming is 29th out of 29 issues. Among moderate Republicans, it’s 23rd. So better, but still a bottom-tier issue. Among moderate and conservative Democrats, however, it’s eighth. And among liberal Democrats, it’s third. And protecting the environment is number two. So for the first time in American history, global warming and the environment are among the top three issues for the progressive base of one of our major political parties. Every single one of the candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination has said climate change is an important issue and that they’ll make it a priority in their administration. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Climate change is now an issue that primary voters in one party care deeply about. I think that’s fascinating and really important. But the data also demonstrate that this country is still very polarized on this issue.

PO: NCSE deeply appreciates the data you've collected and—importantly—made freely available and easy to use. How do you see your work and NCSE's complementing each other?

AL: Fundamentally, NCSE helps the public better understand science to inform decision making. And that’s what we do and are continually trying to figure out: what do Americans understand, or not understand, about climate change? What do they need to know and how best can you engage them? What are the critical understandings they need to make informed decisions? What are the barriers—emotional barriers, political barriers, ideological barriers—getting in the way of people being able to hear, understand, and engage with what scientists and scientific institutions are trying to tell them? Facts do not speak for themselves; people are different and they interpret information in different ways. Evolution, climate change, vaccines: each issue demonstrates that reality on a daily basis. Unfortunately, not everyone just hears the facts about climate change and suddenly says, “I’ve got it.” We live in a rich and complex political, social, and cultural landscape, and our work—the work of both organizations—reflects this.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Paul Oh
Short Bio

Paul Oh is Director of Communications at NCSE.