July 30, 2018

Climate change gets personal – addressing beliefs, trusted sources, and values

Posted by Laura Guertin

Public perception of climate change remains deeply divided, despite a near-unanimous consensus among scientists that human-caused climate change is a reality. How can we strengthen public understanding of and belief in climate change? — The Franklin Institute

On July 25, 2018, The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia hosted Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz (Yale University) as part of its speaker series. The title for this evening’s lecture was Beliefs and Behaviors: Climate Change Gets Personal. Dr. Leiserowitz may be best known in his role as Director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Many of us are familiar with the Yale climate maps, constructed with survey data collected twice a year by YPCCC. Projects, publications, and data visualizations populate their website (http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/). Why survey so many Americans to get their view on global warming beliefs, risk perceptions, and policy support? Dr. Leiserowitz started his talk with the statement that we need a massive global effort to combat climate change – which starts with addressing the beliefs and attitudes of global citizens.

The timing of this talk as interesting, as the day after Dr. Leiserowitz spoke at The Franklin Institute, TED-Ed released a video titled How can you change someone’s mind? (hint: facts aren’t always enough). The video “explains how arguments are more convincing when they rest on a good knowledge of the audience, taking into account what the audience believes, who they trust, and what they value.” Climate change is one of the topics discussed in this <5 minute video – although, I don’t necessarily agree that the IPCC is a trusted source to the average person, as I doubt many have heard of that acronym. It is still an interesting video, embedded below (if it does not appear, here is a link to it in YouTube).

An additional point made by Dr. Leiserowitz during his talk:

The messenger is often more important than the message itself.

He continued on by stating that scientists are trusted communicators, but only 1 in 200 Americans say they know a scientist. This emphasizes the need to make scientists more relatable. Science museums are critical to environmental literacy and engaging people in the enterprise of science, and museums are a trusted communicator. Magazines can also be a trusted source of science people turn to. For example, National Geographic Magazine recently published an article in their July 2018 issue titled Climate Change First Became News 30 Years Ago. Why Haven’t We Fixed It? by Andrew Revkin (a trusted source and author). However, people are still willing to push back on trusted sources if they disagree with the story, such as National Geographic’s starving polar bear and what went wrong.

Which leads me to one final point of Dr. Leiserowitz I’ll mention:

The important important tool of communication is story – facts leave you, stories stick with you.

There are several stories of climate change in the media right at this moment, from The Guardian article, Extreme global weather is ‘the face of climate change’ says leading scientist, to The New York Times Magazine single-theme edition called Losing Earth (see video promoting the issue, issue online August 1). Beyond print/text-only sources, another option for science stories is audio.

Dr. Leiserowitz played examples of stories from the Yale Climate Connections Radio Program. Airing five times a week, these 90-second stories “informs a national radio audience how climate change is already impacting our lives and values as well as “solution stories” about what diverse people and organizations are doing to reduce carbon pollution and increase resilience to climate impacts. The series “connects the dots” between climate change and energy, extreme weather, public health, food and water, jobs and the economy, national security, the creative arts, and religious and moral values, among other themes.”

The first audio story we heard is titled Military-trained combat divers are restoring coral reefs (link is to story and audio). This story has so many ways individuals can make connections to the content, from a passion for the ocean to admiration for those that have served in our armed forces. Dr. Leiserowitz summarized this connection as, “healing the Earth can heal us.”

The second audio story we heard is titled A hip-hop cover of ‘Here Comes the Sun’ is fundraising for hurricane relief. From music to the Beatles to disaster recovery (link is to story and audio), Dr. Leiserowitz emphasized that “everybody can find their own connection to the issue – it really is super-easy.”

I feel that Dr. Leiserowitz’s sold-out lecture only scratched the surface of helping the audience move towards addressing beliefs, trusted sources, and values. He did offer hope, as he reminded us that the social norm of smoking has shifted in society – now, we need to figure out how to do the same for climate change. And he ended his talk with this comment:

Will we find a way to live sustainably on this planet in the 21st century? We either get this right, or we don’t. The story hasn’t been written yet – we are writing the story right now.  —  Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz (Director, YPCCC)

Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz as part of The Franklin Institute speaker series