Why Aren't Americans 'Very Worried' About the Climate?

05/19/2006 02:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It was barely six weeks ago that Time magazine warned us to "Be Worried. Be Very Worried" about climate change. The planet's climate, said the magazine, is "booby-trapped with tipping points and feedback loops, thresholds past which the slow creep of environmental decay gives way to sudden and self-perpetuating collapse." And those tipping points may well be upon us.

So, why aren't Americans worried enough to take action?

A bevy of seemingly lesser problems manage to get ample coverage by the media -- and loud and clear response on the part of Americans and their leaders: immigration, education reform, gas prices, tax cuts, even avian flu. But public discourse on climate -- arguably the mother of all social, environmental, and economic issues -- never seems to move beyond background noise. And that lack of demonstrable concern is reflected in Americans' lack of personal commitment and action -- as well as that of their leaders.

What's going on here?

Some answers may be found in a new study by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. It's Project on Climate Change has just published an informative study on Americans and Climate Change (PDF), the product of a meeting Yale held late last year attended by 110 leading thinkers and actors in the environmental movement. The goal, according to Gus Speth, the school's dean, "was to examine the gap between climate science and climate policy and action, with a particular focus on public understanding as a key intervening variable."

The bottom line: We've got a lot of work to do to change the public's understanding and awareness of the climate issue, and their willingness to do more than simply bury their collective heads in the sand.

Specifically, said the Yale project participants, we need to remove the scientific trappings of climate discussions, which "can cause profound disconnects in how society interprets and acts on the climate change issue." Rather, we need a values-based approach involving religious communities and others to position climate as part of our overall societal responsibility. Climate should be "packaged" with other issues of concern, though that could risk deemphasizing climate change as an explicit societal priority. Translating awareness into action depends on identifying "the deeper incentive structures at play in our society." And, perhaps most of all, we need to make climate change a nonpartisan issue.

Six Easy Pieces The Yale report offers fully 39 recommendations for action aimed at bridging climate's informational and culture divide. Typically, any list of recommendations represents watered-down groupthink -- a set of "actions" that are either too lofty, too vague, or simply not reasonably actionable.

That's not the case here, in my humble opinion. Nearly all of the Yale group's action items seem not only sensible, but smart and systematic -- a comprehensive to-do list for our teachers, editors, students, and business and political leaders.

Here are six of the 39 that I think are representative:

  • Create a new "bridging institution" to actively seek out key business, religious, political, and civic leaders and the media and deliver to them independent, reliable and credible scientific information about climate change (including natural and economic sciences).

  • Educate the gatekeepers (i.e., editors). In order to improve the communication of climate science in the news media, foster a series of visits and conferences whereby respected journalists and editors informed on climate change can speak to their peer editors. The objective is to have those who can credibly talk about story ideas and craft reach out to their peers about how to cover the climate change issue with appropriate urgency, context, and journalistic integrity.
  • Design and execute a "New Vision for Energy" campaign to encourage a national market-based transition to alternative energy sources. Harness multiple messages tailored to different audiences that embed the climate change issue in a larger set of cobenefit narratives, such as: reducing U.S. dependency on Middle East oil (national security); penetrating global export markets with American innovations (U.S. stature); boosting U.S. job growth (jobs); and cutting local air pollution (health).
  • Create a new overarching communications entity or project to design and execute a well-financed public education campaign on climate change science and its implications. This multifaceted campaign would leverage the latest social science findings concerning attitude formation and change on climate change, and would use all available media in an effort to disseminate rigorously accurate information, and to counter disinformation in real time.
  • Systematically test the impact of environmental communications in all media (e.g., advertising, documentary, feature film) on civic engagement, public opinion and persuasive outcomes. Use these to inform new creative work on multi-media climate change communications.
  • Organize a grassroots educational campaign to create local narratives around climate change impacts and solutions, while mobilizing citizen engagement and action. Kick the campaign off with a National Climate Week that would recur on an annual basis.
  • By themselves, these and the 33 other recommendations, should they be fully implemented, won't necessarily stop the inexorable march of melting glaciers, shifting ocean currents, catastrophic weather patterns, and other indicators of climate instability. But they will put us on a path toward personal responsibility and collective action -- and, perhaps, the ability to "Be Hopeful. Be Very Hopeful" about our planet's future.