Sunday, March 2, 2014

One easy thing you can do to combat climate change

The Question

What is one easy thing I can do to combat climate change?

The Short Answer

This one thing is so easy, you'll want to start doing it today. In fact, it is so easy, you'll think it doesn't really count. But if you read the long answer, you'll see why it does count and why you should pat yourself on the back every time you do it. Ready for it?

Tell someone you know that you believe in climate change and so do your friends and neighbors. Tell them that you support taking action against climate change -- and so do 80% of your fellow Americans.

The Long Answer

I recently read a great book that had absolutely nothing to do with climate change. It is called, "Smarter than you think: How technology is changing our minds for the better", written by Clive Thompson. It is a great book that I highly recommend. But why am I talking about it here? 

Well, one of the topics Clive discusses is "ambient awareness". In other words, social media allows people to be more aware of what the other people in their lives are doing or thinking. Ambient awareness can work at a very small or a very big scale. For example, Chinese protesters stopped a copper smelting plant from being built. A small group of citizens used social media to bring the problem to the attention of their community. When everyone in the community found out and realized that everyone else was against it too, the crowd reached a tipping point and took action.

Clive talks about racial segregation in the US in the '60s. At that point, there were laws against it, but people were still engaging in racist behavior. Sociologist Hubert O'Gorman researched the issue, polling Americans across the country. He found that most people did not support segregation, but many people thought that their neighbors did support segregation. In other words, most moderate Whites thought they were surrounded by a bunch of racists and were afraid of upsetting the status quo.

This made me think of the recent sea change on gay rights. Suddenly, a whole bunch of Americans (and their legislators) realized that not only did they support gay rights, but so did their neighbors (and employers and fellow church goers, and so on). The president came out for gay rights (May 2012), DOMA fell (June 2013), and all the while states across the country are repealing anti-gay laws or putting in place laws protecting gay marriage.

Wouldn't it be amazing if something like that happened for climate change?

The amazing thing is that it could. Everything about communication research tells us that this is right. George Lakoff, celebrated cognitive linguist, said that the most important thing we can do is keep climate change top of mind (he also says we should frame it as a climate crisis, not as global warming, but more on that here).

Or take for example the cognitive scientists studying risk perception at Yale Law School. One of their studies showed that conservatives who are the most educated are the most polarized on climate change. Science literate conservatives have a strong personal interest in having beliefs in line with their friends and family, but because they are science literate, they have to work extra hard to find faults with climate science (Read more about it here).

The team behind Yale's Project on Climate Change Communication does a lot of public polling on America's attitudes about the climate crisis. As a professional survey methodologist, I have great respect for their methods and reporting. Their reports show that not only do the vast majority of Americans believe climate change is real, but they want to take action against it. (Read their reports here). In November 2013, that figure was above 80%. That's awesome!

Now all we need to do is spread the word. You don't have to evangelize, you don't have to confront a climate denier. Just quietly and consistently mention it. Put a post on your Facebook about it. Discuss a related news item with a coworker.

See, isn't that easy?