Ask Americans if something should be done to stop global warming and close to three-quarters will say yes. Getting them to act on that belief is something else.
Only 8 percent say they’ve taken the step to contact their political representatives, according to a by Yale and George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.
That paradoxical state of America’s consciousness has drawn the interest of social scientists and psychologists who are captivated by the challenge of how to engage the public and policymakers on climate change.
Earlier this month, the American Psychological Association issued a based on an examination of decades of psychological research on climate, conservation and environmental beliefs and actions. Its conclusion: Psychologists should take a greater role in helping communicate and break down the psychological barriers that are keeping people from accepting the science behind climate change and taking action to stop it.
"What is unique about current global climate change is the role of human behavior," said task force chair Janet Swim of Pennsylvania State University. "We must look at the reasons people are not acting in order to understand how to get people to act."
Part of the difficulty in getting people to accept the reality of climate change has been the success of communications strategies employed by the opposition to sow confusion and doubt about the science. Naysayers have taken advantage of the media’s ethic of balanced reporting and succeeded in inserting the skeptical opinions of a fringe into the mainstream.
Scientists, meanwhile, have proved no match for the denialist campaign generously funded by fossil fuel interest. Most have little skill as spokespeople, unable to effectively communicate and hobbled by their penchant for jargon and cautiousness as well as their training to emphasize the unknown over the known.
The facts about climate change are often scary and can induce such as denial, numbness and the feeling of being overwhelmed, says Dr. Susanne Moser of Santa Cruz, Calif., who studies adaptation to climate change and effective climate change communication to bring about social change. People often don’t fully understand the information. And because individuals are entrenched in their social niches, if action on climate change represents a social norm that’s not consistent with that niche, they will likely not take it.
Yale and GMU researchers found that the U.S. public tends to respond to climate change issues with one of six unique types of behavior, set out in the report .
The six are the Alarmed (18%), who are already active and changing their behavior; the Concerned (33%), who recognize global warming as a serious problem but are not as involved; the Cautious, (19%) who believe global warming is happening but do not feel a sense of urgency; the Disengaged (12%), who haven’t given it much thought; the Doubtful (11%), who are not sure if global warming is happening; and the Dismissive (7%), who do not believe global warming is happening and are actively engaged in downplaying it.
It would appear that the Dismissive have had a far greater influence than their numbers would warrant.
The APA task force found several ways that groups have been successful in getting people to act on climate change. For example, people are more likely to use energy-efficient appliances if they can see immediately—rather than waiting for a utility bill—how much energy they are saving. Smart meters and software currently being developed will give more people that instant feedback.