The Majority of Americans Recognize the Climate is Changing

By Laura Schmidt, Office of Sustainability

Dr. Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, was surprised by the results of his organization’s survey on climate change: the majority of Americans recognize the climate is changing and half think it is human caused.

Maibach spoke about public opinion and global climate change at the University of Utah on Sept. 12 as part of the “Communicating Climate Change” series. He explained that the survey results were unexpected because the national media continues to cover climate change, its effects, and its causes as if it is still an ongoing debate. The survey,  “Climate Change in the American Mind,” is a semi-annual, national survey of American citizens over the age of 18. In addition to the surveys, the Center for Climate Change Communication (4C) also simplifies scientific research and jargon to report it to the public.

A Week of Temperatures Over 100 Degrees.  Thank you "Another Pint Please" for the photo contribution. http://www.flickr.com/photos/anotherpintplease/2605058199/

A Week of Temperatures Over 100 Degrees.
Thank you “Another Pint Please” for the photo contribution. http://www.flickr.com/photos/anotherpintplease/2605058199/

Despite the survey results showing that climate change is accepted by the majority and that it is caused by anthropogenic forces, Maibach notes that “collective efficacy is low.” Maibach suggested that few people have hope that a systemic change can overturn climate change, even though most U.S. citizens are willing to incur either moderate or large economic costs to reduce global warming, according to the survey. “Climate change,” Maibach argues, “is a political problem.”

He says that Americans need policymakers to step up and make proactive changes and that citizens need to communicate desired policy changes with elected officials. Maibach provided some interesting statistics: only one in 10 U.S. citizens has spoken to their elected officials about global warming, but half of the U.S. population has switched to compact fluorescent light bulbs, and many have upgraded to energy-efficient appliances and started eating locally-grown food. Maibach believes the will of the people is there and suggests that our elected officials need to make a move on climate change.

Maibach concluded his presentation with a breakdown of systems thinking. He argued that most people educate others about climate change using “system two” thinking, which is focused on logic and evidence. This mode of thinking engages the analytic portions of the human brain and requires significant energy. It is impossible for people to remain in the analytic portions of their brain for too long; it’s too taxing. Instead, teaching people about climate change using “system one” thinking is much more successful, Maibach says. This type of brainwork is instantaneous and engages people through direct experience.

Who is capable of teaching through “system one” thinking? Maibach suggests television meteorologists. It sounds strange and even comical at first, but then Maibach explains; Jim Gandy in Columbia, South Carolina has been working closely with 4C under a program called “Climate Matters.” This program aims to explain weather trends and why the climate is changing to program viewers. “People pay attention when it’s scary outside,” he says, and people like Gandy can “connect the dots” to explain why the weather patterns are shifting and how global climate change works; thus utilizing experiential learning to affect the viewers.

The two important take-away messages from Maibach’s presentation of survey findings are: 1) If you want to see a change in the way government handles climate change, talk to your elected officials. Use the political system to fix the problem; and 2) People learn best through experiential learning. Personal stories and direct experiences matter.

To learn more, check out 4C’s reports at http://www.climatechangecommunication.org/reports

To see Jim Gandy’s “Weather and Climate Matter” blog visit: http://weatherclimatematter.blogspot.com/

Laura Schmidt is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities. She is a graduate assistant in the Office of Sustainability.

3 responses to “The Majority of Americans Recognize the Climate is Changing

  1. Pingback: Food Systems Must Adapt to Climate Change | Ecology 241·

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