My last blog post covered the psychology of climate change. The post closed questioning whether or not the public will heed global warming’s warning signs. One of the dilemmas facing climate change educators is that research has shown that there is no single American public. There are actually six distinct audiences that need to be communicated with differently regarding climate change.
Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and a Research Scientist at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, says in an episode titled, “Encore: Ending the Silence on Climate Change” this month on Bill Moyer & Company, “There are multiple publics within the United States. In fact, what we've identified are six Americas.”
Leiserowitz goes on to outline, “Six different Americas that each respond to this issue in very different ways and need different kinds of information about climate change to become more engaged with it.” He cautions those of us that want to educate others about global warming, “if we were to do a true engagement campaign in this country we would need to recognize that there are very different Americans who need to be engaged in very different ways who have different values and who trust different messengers.”
Here are the six publics that Leiserowitz refers to:
This group comprises roughly 16 percent of the public and is made up of people who believe global warming is happening. They acknowledge that it is primarily a human caused, serious and urgent problem, and they want to begin implementing solutions as quickly as possible.
However, they aren’t always certain what the solutions are. This is coupled with an uncertainty as to what they can accomplish as individuals as well as society at large. There are things we can do on both fronts, but there remains a communication gap climate change educators need to begin addressing.
This group composes about 29 percent of the public. Like the Alarmed, the Concerned believe climate change is happening, it’s human caused and serious. Where the two groups differ is on the urgency of the problem. The Concerned tend to think of global warming as a distant problem.
Distance is perceived by this group on two levels: in time and space. The Concerned think of climate change impacting their children or other future generations. Spatially, they think global warming is affecting Arctic animals or island nations such as the Philippines. In essence, climate change is a serious problem to this group, but they think there will be plenty of time to address it in the future.
Approximately a quarter of the public make up the Cautious group. This group is undecided. They question whether or not global warming is happening and what is causing it. They aren’t sure it’s even a serious threat, but at least they’re listening. Climate change educators need to engage this group on some of the basic facts of global warming.
This group comprises around eight percent of the public. These people have heard about global warming, but know nothing substantial about it. Climate change educators should begin by elevating the Disengaged’s basic awareness of the issue. Then they need to outline global warming’s causes, consequences and potential solutions.
The second to last group makes up roughly 13 percent of the public. This group doesn’t think climate change is really happening, and if it is it is natural and not human caused. This leads the Doubtful to believe there is nothing that we can do about the issue. These people pay scant attention to global warming, but even if they do they’re inclined to believe it is not a problem.
This last group comprises a mere eight percent of the American public, but they are very vocal. These people do not believe climate change is happening, nor do they believe it is human caused or a serious problem. Many of the Dismissive are conspiracy theorists who claim global warming is a hoax. They loudly and openly question the validity of climate science data, claiming it’s some sort of plot to further other countries and/or people’s gains.
As you can see from the six distinct publics, there are some definite climate change communication challenges, but the first step is certainly knowing your audience. Perhaps we should also consider looking at statistics in a different way, one that addresses humans’ visual nature.
Seeing Climate Change from a Different Perspective
Chris Jordan is a digital photographic artist best known for his large scale works portraying mass consumption, consumerism and waste. Jordan imbeds the message in his art. For example, the photograph above titled, “Caps Seurat” is made up of 400,000 plastic bottle caps, which is equal to the average number of plastic bottles consumed in the United States every minute. Jordan has said of his art, “There's this contrast between the beauty in the images and the underlying grotesqueness of the subjects. And it's something that I put there intentionally. Because I was using beauty as a seduction, to draw the viewer in to sit through the piece long enough that the underlying message might seep in.”
Now that you see the art of climate change communication, I’ll explore the political nature of the issue in my next blog post, which is the final in this three-part series.