The Meme Climate Communicators are Betting On

By Keith Kloor | January 25, 2013 9:23 am

In his big speech earlier this week, President Obama put the American people on notice that he intends to make climate change a centerpiece of his second term. But is the nation with him on that?

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reports:

Dealing with global warming ranks at the bottom of the public’s priority list. Just 28% say it should be a top priority for the president and Congress, little changed from 2012.

That’s not an encouraging statistic for the climate movement. It also suggests that last year’s extreme and irregular weather events in the United States–such as the mild winter, scorching summer heat waves, and Hurricane Sandy, which, in the media, was often associated with climate change–did not appreciably move the needle on public opinion the way some assumed it did.

So what gives? Matthew Nisbet, a communications scholar who specializes in the climate field, does a good job of sorting through “the factors that might be accounting for climate change remaining a bottom-tier public priority and what these factors might mean for paths forward.”

If you follow what pundits and climate activists say, then you probably know that much of the blame is assigned to climate skeptics, moneyed interests (Big Oil!), and conservative politicians. While Nisbet acknowledges these variables, he says that “largely overlooked has been the transformative influence of the economy and unemployment on public concern over climate change.”

Nisbet spends a great deal of his post discussing studies that demonstrate a strong correlation between the state of the economy and public opinion on climate change. In a nutshell: Concern rises when the economy is strong and dips when the economy is bad. He also mentions the “limited pool of worry” theory, which cognitive researchers have applied to the climate issue. (For more on that, see these NPR and New York Times pieces)

This all makes sense, but at the the end of the day, what climate communicators want to know is how to overcome all the aforementioned hurdles to instill a sense of urgency in the public, so that climate change is no longer viewed as a vague threat in the distant future. Here, Nisbet offers some advice (from an interview he did with Climate Central):

With another researcher, Edward Maibach, who is the director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, we’re looking at how you can frame climate change in a way that is more personal to people. For example, we’re looking at, to what degree, you can communicate about climate change as a public health concern. If we can engage people in a conversation about the link between long-term chronic health concerns, like allergies, and climate change, then they will understand what the impact will be for them. They may begin to care about climate change because it is going to make their condition worse in the future.

The same can be said for communicating to people about actions that are local and regional, like increasing accessibility to public transportation, making communities safer and easier to walk in, or making fruits and vegetables more affordable, which could reduce meat consumption. These are the kinds of things people will want to invest in, not because they offer a long-term climate change benefit but because they improve the community and quality of life in general.

Only after you connect with people this way, at the personal and local level, can you then get people participating in a dialogue about bigger policy efforts. And that’s rarely been done before now. We’ve never really connected at a local and personal level about climate change.

Hmm, good luck with that public health frame. I also don’t see it working as a galvanizing force that conveys the immediacy of the climate threat that many climate scientists speak of. That said, the localizing of climate change is something that many in the climate-concerned community have increasingly keyed in on recent years. Indeed, as I discussed several months ago, the “new normal” phrase has become shorthand for climate change-related extreme weather. Almost all freak storms, major floods and droughts are now discussed in the context of climate change. Whether this is being done judiciously or appropriately is another question. A good example of how this frame is now commonly used was on display several days ago, when Sierra Club executive president Michael Brune said on CNN:

We noticed that last year we had record numbers of wildfires throughout the Mountain West, as you cited; 61 percent of the country suffered a crippling drought. We had Superstorm Sandy with 1,000-mile diameter storm hitting the east coast, flooding my parents house, causing billions of dolloars worth of damage.

The reality is that the extreme weather is here. Our climate has begun to be destabilized.

This is the new rhetorical normal. Both climate scientists and environmental advocates talk like this. They’re not talking about allergies being worse in the future, or actions that can be taken to improve the quality of life–they’re asserting that climate change is affecting the quality of life now.

Leading climate scientists are making direct causal links between climate change and today’s heat waves and droughts. Studies suggest that people are making these links on their own. And not just in the United States, but globally, as well. A recent study in the journal Nature Climate Change found:

We demonstrate that public perceptions correspond with patterns of observed temperature change from climate records: individuals who live in places with rising average temperatures are more likely than others to perceive local warming. As global climate change intensifies, changes in local temperatures and weather patterns may be increasingly detected by the global public. These findings also suggest that public opinion of climate change may shift, at least in part, in response to the personal experience of climate change.

A recently issued draft report by the U.S. government asserted that “climate change, once considered an issue for the distant future, has moved firmly into the present.” As CJR’s Curtis Brainard summarizes, the report

is more than 400 pages long and contains detailed descriptions of the way climate change is affecting every corner of the country.

Because regional and local newspapers mostly failed to cover the report, Brainard says the media squandered a “rare opportunity to localize climate coverage.”

Again, if the latest Pew survey is any measure, it doesn’t appear that the climate change = severe weather today frame is leading people (at the time being) to prioritize global warming over other enduring concerns, such as the economy.

Nonetheless, this is the frame that climate communicators and activists are now putting all their chips on. We should know within a year or two if it pays off.

[Graphic linking climate change and extreme weather/Union of Concerned Scientists]

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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