Taking Ownership of Climate Change

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Tompkins Weekly 9-15-14

By Wendy Skinner

In the September 1 “Signs of Sustainability” column, Richard W. Franke summarized long-term and continuing evidence of global climate change from a broad range of scientific and technological disciplines. Dr. Franke listed key studies that support the reality of what is happening to our planet. It was an article to be clipped and folded into one’s wallet for future rereading.

Faced with the immediacy of climate change and its consequences, it would seem that, aside from running screaming into the night, we should be vigorously pursuing ways to save our planet. A significant barrier to seeking remedies is not the veracity of scientific evidence, but whether people believe in it.

According to a recently updated report from the Brookings Institution, Americans’ acceptance of the reality of global climate change dropped from 72 percent in 2007 to 55 percent in April 2014. The researchers found that the cold winter of 2013-14 influenced people’s beliefs. This cognitive gap between macro- and micro-observations may be one reason many Americans have been slow to react to the threats of climate change.

An Associated Press poll from earlier this year indicated that people tend to believe in what they can perceive, such as a traditionally cold winter, and to doubt concepts that are further from their experience. Other studies show that somewhere between half to three-quarters of Americans accept the reality of climate change. A prickling question remains, however: Who cares?

A graph with a disturbing dip was published in Scientific American this past Spring. First the good news: In an assessment of 21 different surveys of 200,000 people in 44 states, SciAm reported remarkable agreement across political and geographic sectors. While the numbers were lowest in Utah and highest in Rhode Island, the majority of those polled agreed that climate change is happening and that human actions are part of the cause. A majority also favored government-imposed limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

The thorn in this rosy picture is that a mere 3 to 15 percent responded that they consider global climate change to be “extremely important” to them personally. Other studies show that many people, among them political leaders, don’t relate climate change to anything that will affect them in their lifetimes—although about one-third of us say we “worry” about climate change.

A challenge for the sustainability leadership is how to move the populace to embrace personal involvement and responsibility. What will inspire individuals to feel more personally involved and to do more than worry?

A Yale University study labeled Americans’ attitudes toward climate change as Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Doubtful, Disengaged, and Dismissive. Of the people in these groups, about a third said they had all the information they needed to form their beliefs. The Yale study also asked participants about their emotional responses to climate change. Words that came up most often from the alarmed and concerned were afraid, angry, sad, disgusted, helpless, and interestingly, hopeful. The dismissive group also used the words disgusted and angry, although probably for different reasons.

Polls and studies are arguably flawed, but based on this sampling from reputable sources, a reasonable conclusion is that while we increasingly know and believe the facts about global climate change, we are reluctant to take ownership.

Wendy Skinner is the director of SewGreen, a not-for-profit reuse, sewing education, and youth jobs program in Ithaca NY.











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