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Six Tips for Newly Climate-Concerned Americans

08/08/2012 04:57 pm ET | Updated Oct 08, 2012
  • Mike Sandler Political economist, climate change professional and sustainability advocate

Articles about climate change should find a receptive and growing audience in August 2012. Surrounded by heat waves and droughts, it is harder than ever to deny that something ominous is happening. NASA climate scientist James Hansen summarized his team's latest paper in the Washington Post. The paper concludes that human-induced climate change, and not natural variability, is the cause of the extreme heat waves and greater weather variability after 1980.

Bill McKibben's recent article in Rolling Stone describes a "New Math" that consists of more fossil fuels in the ground and on the balance sheets of the oil and coal companies than the atmosphere can safely absorb. That excess supply needs to stay in the ground and not be mined or burned for the climate to have a chance. This puts the fossil fuel companies and the Earth's ecosystems on a collision course, unless an apartheid-style divestment campaign by institutions, universities, and pension funds can cause those companies to recalibrate their business plans to live within the means of the global atmospheric carbon sink.

Any communications specialist will tell you that what is said and what is heard can be two different things. Hansen's and McKibben's papers are being received by six different categories of Americans, according to "Global Warming's Six Americas," a study by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. These categories are:

  1. Alarmed (about climate change; this is the "climate activist" category)
  2. Concerned (nervous, hopes someone does something about it)
  3. Cautious (think there may be a problem, but not sure)
  4. Disengaged (have given little thought to the issue, don't know enough about it to have an opinion one way or another)
  5. Doubtful (that climate change is happening or that humans are causing it)
  6. Dismissive (of evidence that climate change is happening; this is the "climate denier" category)

Direct experience with heat waves and drought may be moving some Cautious and Disengaged people into the Concerned category. These individuals may benefit from a few tips for dealing with their new worries about climate change:

  1. Build Community -- it helps. If your existing community watches Fox News, or listens to Rush Limbaugh, then your new concern about climate change will cause some cognitive dissonance. That's OK, you'll be facing cognitive dissonance quite a bit at first, like every time you switch on a light or drive your car. Joining a community that recognizes the paradoxes that climate change brings to modern Americans can help during those first troubling weeks, months, and years.
  2. Listen to upbeat messages. Upbeat, positive messages about humanity, or about our ability to change, adapt, survive, and help each other through tough times can be helpful in countering anxiety after reading several depressing articles about the coming climate-pocalypse. A good example is a lyric from Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds": "Every little thing, gonna be alright."
  3. Problems have solutions: find one you like, implement it, and tell your friends about it. In his book Ravaging Tide, author and Alarmed American Mike Tidwell describes his purchase of a stove that burns corn kernels to heat his house, and how after he told his neighbors, they formed a cooperative that involved local farmers and elected officials. His small action inspired his community. Others have joined Community Supported Agriculture programs, bought hybrid cars, or become goat cheese makers. These individual actions have a small effect on the overall climate picture, but they can play an important psychological role in helping Alarmed Americans stay positive.
  4. A caveat to this tip is to be careful about going overboard. You don't want to burnout, or become a person no one else wants to hang out with. For example, No Impact Man is known for making his wife go without toilet paper for a year. It is more important to get a carbon price (see #6 below), than to deprive your loved ones of simple necessities.

  5. Spend some time with folks with other interests. Some attorneys don't like to have friends who are also attorneys. If you are nervous about climate change, definitely spend time with friends who have other pursuits, sports, music, art, whatever, also.
  6. Join a group that is working on climate change issues. There are groups working on climate change issues around open space, transportation and land use issues, water quality and wildlife, youth education, and of course advocacy for climate policy. Before you choose a group to join, take a moment to ponder your theory of change. What type of change needs to happen for society to address climate change? Who makes social change happen? Are you more comfortable with inside strategies (working with elected officials) or outside strategies (i.e. pressuring corporations to change their business practices)? Do you want to work on communications, technology, regulations, economics, or something else? Are you more focused on individual actions, community actions, jurisdictional actions, or national legislation?
  7. Last but not least, work to put a price on carbon. The entire economy needs to shift to low-carbon fuels. The most efficient way to do this is through an escalating price on carbon that makes alternatives more competitive. Revenues collected can be returned to consumers as a dividend to reduce the costs borne by consumers. On August 2, 2012, Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA) introduced the Managed Carbon Price Act. The bill sets a price on carbon, allows companies flexibility in meeting their reduction obligations, and returns 75 percent of revenues back to consumers. If you're a newly Alarmed or Concerned American, this looks like a good bill to support.