During her 2018 TED Talk, renowned climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe said the most important thing people can do to fight climate change is talk about it—the very thing people were not doing at the time.
Turns out, they’re still not talking about it, a new VICE News poll has found.
VICE News partnered with the Guardian, Covering Climate Now, and pollster YouGov to determine how Americans feel about climate change, including where they get their climate change information. Most people said they get it from news sites and social media—but rarely talk to their friends and family about it.
In fact, 59.4 percent of respondents said they never or almost never hear about climate change from their friends and family, compared to 42.0 percent who rarely or never turn to social media and 18.8 percent who don’t rely on mainstream news sources.
This matters because we’re influenced by the people we know and trust, said Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of Yale’s climate change communication program. Credible news outlets and social media can be useful tools that allow people to easily access climate information. Social media, for example, allows people to connect and rapidly share climate-related stories. (That’s despite its obvious downsides of spreading climate misinformation and disinformation.)
But that doesn’t mean we should take real-life relationships for granted.
“We know from so much research that what friends and family say and do have influences on behavior. It’s really an important part of this,” Leiserowitz said.
Talking about climate change more often with the people around us can compel us all to fight against climate change, he said.
According to Leiserowitz, communication is a key element for “actually solving the problem, which is at its root, all about reducing carbon pollution”—especially when we’re running out of time to salvage our already-harmed planet.
We’re in an “all-hands-on-deck moment” and the only way to get people to engage is to communicate about it, Leiserowitz said. So why is talking so hard?
Leiserowitz and other experts told VICE News climate change has become a polarized topic, like sex, religion, and politics—issues you’re often hesitant to bring up at the dinner table because you’re unsure how relatives and friends will react.
“The climate change conversation has become quite politicized, and people tend to shy away from those conversations,” said Amaury Laporte, communications director with the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI).
It’s worth noting that a very small minority—about 8 percent—doesn’t believe in climate change. But that group is loud, even enjoying some representation in Congress, Leiserowitz said.
“That has intimidated the rest of the country from talking about climate change,” he said.
Convincing conspiracy theorists and outright deniers to take climate change seriously is unlikely, but the majority of people—92 percent—understand or are willing to learn that the Earth is rapidly warming and the situation is dire. They’re the ones who benefit from meaningful, open communication, Leiserowitz said.
“The time you spend talking to conspiracy theorists could be way better served spending time talking to those who are concerned or doubtful.”
According to Christian Morris, a spokesperson with the nonprofit ClimateXChange, feelings of shame or fear pose another hurdle that likely prevents people from talking about the climate crisis.
It's a catch-22: People may avoid discussing climate change because they don’t want to appear ignorant or uninformed, or they don’t want to inconvenience those around them by forcing an unwanted conversation. Meanwhile, friends and relatives are thinking the exact same thing, Morris said.
“We are missing an opportunity to connect over the issue and motivate each other to get involved,” Morris said.
There's an opportunity for everyone to connect more. The data showed that Democrats (39.3 percent) and people who identify as “liberal” (41.8 percent) and “very liberal” (44.1 percent) were more likely to say they discuss climate change with friends and family at least once a week than Republicans (15.3 percent) and those who self-describe as “very conservative” (13.3 percent) or conservative (14.5 percent).
Education level also mattered: Only 16 percent of people with a high school education or less heard about the climate crisis from friends and family at least once per week, but that number jumped to 44.2 percent for postgrads. Higher incomes were also correlated with time spent chatting about climate change.
One way forward is to meet people where they are and link climate change to topics they find interesting.
“You don’t need to become a card-carrying environmentalist,” Leiserowitz said. “If you care about chocolate, you can care about climate change; if you care about coffee, you can care about climate change.”
“Know your audience. Who are you talking to? What do they care about?” he said, adding that shame, anger, and confrontation don’t work as well as listening and understanding.
Finally, leading by example, if you have the resources to do so, is a really effective way to encourage others to take climate efforts seriously, said Daniel Bresette, EESI’s executive director.
“We communicate verbally for sure, but also through actions,” Bresette said. “Maybe when you’re sitting around a Thanksgiving table it isn't the time to call out someone, but you can YouTube recycling or use sustainable materials or turn off the lights when you leave the room… There are ways to communicate solutions.”
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