Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication at Yale University, spoke at the Crowds and Climate 2014 event at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on November 6, with a bit of a dismal point: That awareness of climate change is dangerously lacking everywhere. But he made the point that there are a few things the community can do about that, and that it should start at the basics.
“Let’s assume that there is enough space in most people’s heads for five key facts,” he said. “What would you want them to understand?” He and his team devised the following basic principles regarding global warming that they believe would be easiest to get people to understand:
1. It’s real
2. It’s us
3. It’s bad
4. Scientists agree
5. There’s hope
Almost 2 billion people have never heard of climate change. And many of them are in places that are severely affected by climate change. Awareness-building in the developing world is a priority, but the bulk of Leiserowitz’s project has focused on the U.S. 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 were some of the bigger years for awareness, but since then, a drop has occurred, and the more alarming fact is that — out of the number of Americans who believe global warming is happening — only half of them believe it is human-caused. Leiserowitz emphasizes that it’s crucial to communicate that nearly all climate scientists agree that global warming is happening, and is human-caused.
But despite this truth, i.e., that 98% of climate scientists agree, a powerful disinformation campaign has perpetuated the idea that the jury is still out on the existence of climate change.
Leiserowitz also said that many Americans feel as though climate change is either at the bottom of the national priority list of concerns, and/or that it is a problem for other countries. And all the education that occurred in those aforementioned years declined because other concerns took priority for Americans — namely the economy. News coverage of climate change also plummeted in the years following 2008.
So, if climate change is not unsolvable, what can be done about it? Leiserowitz mentions that there are “legions” of things to do, but if people could see carbon emissions, it might bring more folks on board. “We have done a great job of communicating the problem, and not the solutions,” he says. On a basic, local level, there must be better communication from scientists and educators in order to spread awareness about this very real problem. He proposes some communication design imperatives: How do we make the problem visible? How do we increase perceived risk and hope? How do we build public and political will?
While Leiserowitz doesn’t have the answers, perhaps the collective brainpower at the MIT Climate CoLab’s event will have some solutions over the next few years.