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Climate Change Is Happening… So What?
US Army Corps of Engineers tours flooded areas in Burlington, North Dakota in 2011. Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Patrick Moes
NEW YORK, May 16 2013 (IPS) - Seven in 10 U.S. citizens believe climate change is real and happening now. Yet most have never even contacted a government official about the issue, let alone volunteered with an environmental organisation or taken other action.
These findings are part of an exploration of Climate Change in the American Mind issued by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
"This is about something much deeper. It’s about identity, about values, it’s about emotions." -- Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Project
“They think it’s about polar bears or developing countries, not the United States… not my community, not my friends and family,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project, told IPS.
Researchers divided the U.S. population into “six Americas” that share similar beliefs about climate change. Seventy percent belong to three major “Americas” that believe, to a more or less strong degree, that climate change is happening, is harmful and is caused by humans.
After falling between 2008 and 2010, public awareness on the topic here has been rising again, probably because of the number and severity of extreme weather events in the last two years. The trend was confirmed by an opinion poll released in April by the Gallup Institute.
The latest dire warning came just this week, when the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, announced that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had passed the critical threshold of 400 parts per million.
To put this number in perspective, the last time the Earth had a similar concentration of CO2 was three million years ago during the Pliocene era, when sea levels were up to 80 feet higher.
“The main way people know about this issue is through media reporting,” Leiserowitz explained. “And when the media don’t report it, it’s literally out of sight and out of mind.”
Bringing climate change down to earth
Television weather forecasters seem ideally suited to become climate change educators: they speak to thousands or even millions of people every day, often three to four times a day, and they are already trusted by their audiences.
The Yale Project is providing them with tools and training to discuss climate change, connecting them with the climate science community and organising debates with meteorologists who hold varying opinions of climate change to foster dialogue.
The idea of making information more accessible also inspired Climate Commons, an online interactive map of the United States, launched on Apr. 22 by the organisation Internews, as part of its Earth Journalism Network (EJN).
Data on climate change indicators – such as temperature, weather events and emissions – and related news stories are visualised on the map, tracking the impact of global warming and the presence, or absence, of media coverage.
“We are hoping that journalists and other communicators, as well as the general public, can all use this visualisation and can understand better what’s going on,” James Fahn, global director of EJN, told IPS.
“Eventually we do definitely want this map to become a source for bottom-up news and information and then observations and news from the public,” he said.
Because while a “good understanding of the problem … is necessary, it’s not sufficient,” he said, adding that more spaces are needed for citizen participation in actual policy making.
Shaping environmental democracy
“Ultimately, how we protect our environment is a fundamental question of how we … exercise our democracy,” Michael Marx, director of the Beyond Oil Campaign at Sierra Club, the largest grassroots environmental organisation in the U.S., told IPS.
David Eisenhauer of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) agreed, telling IPS that “providing an opportunity for citizen input is foundational to our democracy”.
In March, the USFWS released its “Climate Adaptation Strategy” outlining nationwide strategies for the next five to 10 years to protect species and resources in a changing climate. Written in response to a 2010 call by the U.S. Congress and produced in collaboration with federal, state and tribal agencies, the strategy benefited during its draft stage from nearly 55,000 comments from individuals and organisations.
The range of actions that can be taken by ordinary citizens to address climate change is broad, and can be as simple as keeping the thermostat in one’s home on a lower setting, as one commenter suggested.
“The combination of personal behaviour choices and civic engagement and activism is a potent tool that has global scale consequences,” said Marx.
According to Leiserowitz, changing individual lifestyles in the United States could cut emissions by 10 percent. “The other 90 percent really has to come from a systemic change,” he said.
That means that public demands for change in the U.S need to be more systematic and urgent, said Leiserowitz.
On Feb. 17, the Sierra Club participated in a Forward on Climate Rally that drew an estimated 40,000 people in Washington D.C.
“We do not see the diversity and occasional conflict within the climate movement as a bad thing,” Marx said. “We accept that a democratic approach – as divisive and chaotic as it can appear – is also the most resilient and strongest [one].”
Fears of “big government”
Climate change is not only an environmental issue, Leiserowitz pointed out. It cuts across multiple aspects of society, including the economy, national security, and cultural and religious beliefs.
Some opponents of actions like mandatory emissions cuts fear they could be a pretext to usher in more intrusive government, as has been seen in other hot-button debates over issues like gun control and health care.
“They’re so afraid of the policy response that they suddenly become very sceptical of the problem itself,” said Leiserowitz.
“This is about something much deeper. It’s about identity, about values, it’s about emotions, and if you don’t know that that’s what you’re dealing with, you will eternally be frustrated when you provide them with more and more facts and they don’t respond the way you think they are going to.”