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Understanding the Climate State of Mind

By Keith Kloor
Mar 31, 2011 4:36 PMNov 19, 2019 10:50 PM


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In 2009, a cover story in The New York Times magazine titled, "Why Isn't the Brain Green?" opened this way:

Two days after Barack Obama was sworn in as president of the United States, the Pew Research Center released a poll ranking the issues that Americans said were the most important priorities for this year. At the top of the list were several concerns "” jobs and the economy "” related to the current recession. Farther down, well after terrorism, deficit reduction and en ergy (and even something the pollsters characterized as "moral decline") was climate change. It was priority No. 20. That was last place.

Several days ago, Gallup released poll results ranking U.S public concern for nine environmental issues. Global warming came in last. I discussed the poll yesterday in this post, and a lively comment thread ensued. So what's going on here? Why isn't global warming more worrisome to people? Jon Gertner, in his Times magazine piece two years ago, summarized the conventional explanations thought to be responsible:

Debates over why climate change isn't higher on Americans' list of priorities tend to center on the same culprits: the doubt-sowing remarks of climate-change skeptics, the poor communications skills of good scientists, the political system's inability to address long-term challenges without a thunderous precipitating event, the tendency of science journalism to focus more on what is unknown (will oceans rise by two feet or by five?) than what is known and is durably frightening (the oceans are rising).

He could have written that paragraph today. But as his story lays out, there is a growing body of social science research that suggests the above reasons are not entirely sufficient (though they are surely contributing factors). Earlier this month, I attended a conference on the state of this research and how it can be used to better communicate the climate change issue. The three-day symposium was called "Climate, Mind, and Behavior." On the first day, one of the presenters, Jonathan Rowson, a UK scholar, set the stage with this:

Quite a few of us realize that [more] information isn't working, that facts don't do it. The question is, why exactly?"

One reason, Columbia University's Elke Weber explained during her presentation (her work was also featured in that NYT magazine article), is that our brains are able to process only so many concerns at a given time:

If we have attentional limitations, if we have to be selective"¦it's because we don't have sufficient attention for everything.

Weber characterizes this as our "finite pool of worry." Thus, fluctuating public opinion on climate change, as measured in year-to-year polling surveys, should be understood in this context, Weber advised:

Sometimes we see these precipitous dips [in concern about climate change]. A lot of it has to do with "˜compared to what' are we concerned about climate change.

For example, Weber attributed a big dip in 2001 to the September 11 attacks on New York's World Trade Center:

We only have so much attention and worry to go around and compared to terrorism, climate change was low on the agenda.

Similarly, she added, a more recent dip in public concern occurred in 2008, amidst the global economic collapse. Another reason why climate change doesn't gain more traction, Weber said, is because of a lack of salience:

It doesn't have the characteristics of making our hair stand up on end. For most of us, it's distant in time and space.

Drew Westen, an Atlanta-based psychologist and political analyst who was beamed in via skype, reiterated during his talk that bombarding the public with more facts and data on climate change was a losing strategy. Instead, Westen argued that, "people don't have strong emotions about climate change," and that the best way to make the issue more deeply felt was through storytelling. Stories activate emotions, he said, noting:

We're a storytelling species.

What's needed, Westen said, are climate change narratives that

speak to ordinary citizens, particularly those that are on the fence.

Westen also emphasized the need for "multiple messages" that spoke to different demographics. Messages that succeed, he said, link climate change to values and concerns that people already have. So one message crafted around energy solutions might appeal to one group, while another message on pollution and health concerns might appeal to another. This is similar to the framing strategy advocated by Matthew Nisbet and others. I'll be posting more dispatches from this symposium in the coming week. Meanwhile, those that are interested can head over to the Garrison Institute's website, where a number of the talks are posted. Weber's is just below.

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