A new poll released this week by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication reveals that Americans rarely--very rarely--hear people they know talk about climate change and surprisingly few hear about it on a weekly basis in the news media.
Anthony Leiserowitz, Ph.D., Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, writes:
"Our survey finds, for example, that only 40% of the American public says they hear about global warming in the media at least once a month and only 19% hear about it at least once a week. Further, only 16% say that they hear people they know talk about global warming at least once a month, with only 4% reporting they hear other people talking about it at least once a week."
Only 4 percent of Americans hear people they know talk about climate change on a weekly basis.
Is it any wonder that Congress is not treating climate action as a priority?
Or, despite positive actions from the White House and many cities and a growing number of businesses, that the United States has yet to definitively rally around what is if not the biggest threat, certainly one of the biggest threats to human health and well-being?
My research, like that of others, has shown that there are many psychological and even cognitive reasons we humans, perhaps Americans in particular, resist thinking about climate change.
- It appears overwhelming.
- It makes us feel relatively powerless in comparison.
- It has been made confusing.
- It still appears as a deceptively distant threat (although, here in California, that is changing by the day.)
- And, in many ways, the story of what is happening in our world has yet to be told in a manner that, rather than sounding depressing, inspires a sense of conviction and the will to act.
But if the vast majority of Americans are still not even talking about climate change, we will never break through these obstacles and put irresistible pressure on Congress and every other opponent to stop fighting all reasonable actions to combat climate change and finally take positive action-for the sake of their own children and grandchildren if no one else's.
So how does this change? How do we change it?
As I have written elsewhere, the model of gay and lesbian Americans "coming out" is a good one. Not perfect but we don't need perfect. We need action. And what gays and lesbians proved is that one-on-one communication is a deeply powerful tool for creating social change.
The teenager, the mother, the husband, the actress, the Congressman, the Olympian, the football star-all the many people who said simply, "I'm gay," changed the world. Their world, and our world. By making their issue personal, and taking one small brave step, they moved hearts and minds that may never have opened and changed in any other way.
That is what I believe all of us who are concerned about climate change need to do--in addition to all the other necessary political and practical actions.
Teenagers, parents, celebrities, politicians, teachers, sports stars, everyone needs to find a way to say what they think about climate change to someone else: friends, family members, clergy, neighbors, representatives.
It can be as simple as: I am worried about how climate change will affect my kids.
Some people hesitate about saying even that because they think they will then need to have answers to questions such as: So what can we do about it? But getting more of a public conversation going on climate change doesn't require having all the answers (although they are there to be had for those who want them.)
It's enough to know this: Our nation needs to do more to transition off the oil and coal that cause climate change and transition to solar, wind and other forms of clean energy.
That's it. We don't all have to be experts. Few of the people who helped change society for gay and lesbian Americans were experts. After all, sometimes keeping it simple works. And they knew, quite simply, what mattered and what was right: Equality.
On climate change, we can also know what matters and what is right-which is again: Fairness. Every generation has a responsibility to preserve a healthy world for every future generation.
And then we need to say it--not as a final step, of course, but as a necessary first step--so many more than 4 percent of Americans will hear people they know talking about the need for climate action, and join in.
An earlier version of this post appeared on Lisa Bennett's blog.