The United States was once called a 'melting pot,' a place where different societal elements blended to form a shared culture. Can a melting pot process emerge from the diverse range of public opinion on climate change? National survey research by a Yale and George Mason University team suggests the U.S. is less polarized than the impression given by the public contentiousnesss of the issue.
We all have a friend or met someone who is in denial about anthropogenic climate change. On the other end of the spectrum, we all might have a few friends who care intensely about climate change and are exceptionally environmentally conscientious. Not everyone falls into these two clear categories – most people are in a gray area in between.
Where do you fit in this climate change spectrum? Americans can be classified into six distinct climate change groups according to Dr. Edward Maibach, Director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.
Using national survey studies, Dr. Maibach dissects the views on climate change into six separate categories in an effort to understand stakeholders’ perspectives. Understanding each group’s “beliefs on reality, causes and dangers of global warming, in the political ideology, and in their underlying worldviews,” is vital to effective communication on the issue. Communicating to a wide base on climate change is essential if meaningful political and policy actions are to be taken to address the global problem. By understanding the reservations that each group has on climate change, governments and organizations can develop communication strategies to address their concerns.
Each group among the “Six Americas” can be described by its level of motivation and concern about climate change, along with varying levels of belief in anthropogenic climate change. The groups (from most concerned to least concerned) are designated as Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, and Dismissive. It is important to note that, although the groups “think differently, they don’t look different.” That is, each group has a varying perspective on climate change, but the groups do not differ much on the “basis of sex, race, age or income.”
Using the data compiled from a national survey of 992 responders in March 2012, we see that only 10% of Americans are characterized as “dismissive,” in spite of the aggressive efforts of the global warming disinformation campaign waged by conservative media, “free market” think tanks, and corporate funded PR. The majority of respondents, 68 percent, support a range of policies to address climate change and typically are taking steps to reduce their energy consumption (results from the survey, as presented recently in an Environmental Protection Agency webinar, here) .
How should America go about addressing climate change? The polling indicates strong support for an accelerated transition away from carbon-intensive fuel sources to renewable energy.
According to the data, Maibach says, “all six groups feel that clean energy deployment should be a priority,” along with very strong support for tax incentives to purchase efficient vehicles and solar panels. Findings also indicate strong support for greater renewable energy research and development. These findings mirror public sentiment for renewable energy and the wind energy production tax credit, currently being held in limbo by Congress. A strong push by wind industry advocates and citizens in wind- rich states has many believing that the tax credit will be extended beyond 2012.
The public opinion data indicate the potential for broad support for policies of climate change adaptation and mitigation, but the question remains, how to link this public support with actual climate policy. Harnessing public sentiment has been a major hurdle facing the President and Congressional supporters of stronger climate policy. The political gridlock has made progress on this issue arduous, to say the least, even with majority public support.
Maibach argues that all change starts with you, the citizen. Whether it is through purchasing power, activism, or simply calling your representative and voicing your opinion, all change starts with you. Currently, Americans are speaking with their wallets and not their voices, according to Maibach. Some elected representatives, focusing solely on reelection and near-term political considerations, have become deaf to the voices from people about climate change.
According to Dr. Maibach, messaging could be vital to reaching the small number of people who deny climate change, but only if it’s done the right way. “Messaging is not a very powerful vehicle for public change. That said, it could be very powerful particularly when it adheres to simple clear messages reported often from a variety of trusted sources. There is a really important need to put lots of trusted voices in America behind climate change,” he says.
Who is to lead the way on messaging? Maibach suggests mobilizing the roughly 1,300 local TV weather forecasters to lead on climate change messaging. Weathermen, he says, are the second most trusted group on climate change behind climate scientists. This might be a good place to start, but with their hit-and-miss track record with predicting weather and their typical reluctance to step into matters they see as controversial, I think it’s best to find additional alternatives.
Environmental advocates think it’s time for the President to elevate the national conversation on climate change, but will he? The President pledged to do so in November, and we must hold him accountable for following through on it. The opportune time is upon us, to ride the wave of public sentiment after Hurricane Sandy, to deal with communicating about climate change and for political leaders to engage with a wide range of stakeholders and the general public. The unprecedented weather we all have experienced this year can potentially lead to forging a coherent approach, even among the diverse group of the Alarmed, the Concerned, and the Cautious.
It would seem that the average American citizen is ahead of their political representatives on this issue. If this study were conducted today (new data from the series of Yale and George Mason surveys should be available in the near future), the data would likely show even stronger public support to address climate change. Hurricane Sandy has changed the game on global warming, bringing the sometimes ambiguous and distant issue to millions of doorsteps – figuratively and even literally -- not 50 years from now, but today. Extreme weather and drought this year have helped to remind every American that we all are vulnerable to climate change impacts. Polling has reaffirmed the widely-shared sentiment that climate change is real and something must be done. Our natural world is providing intense pressure and heat in order to create the ‘melting pot’ for climate change.
Behind strong support for renewable energy, the transition away from fossil fuels, and proactive preparedness for climate change impacts, the United States can be a global leader on climate change. The public support is there – but the public needs the right leadership to stir the pot.