Sarah Lichtner

The climate change discussion is everywhere lately, with new articles published daily. Yet in the United States, our level of concern about climate change has been decreasing. According to the “Climate Change in the American Mind” survey series, the percentage of Americans who acknowledge that global warming is happening dropped 7 points from Fall 2012 to 63% in Spring 2013, and only 49% of Americans agree that global warming, if it is happening, is caused by human actions. A previous survey within the series showed that the number of Americans worried about climate change declined from 63% to 52% between November 2008 and May 2011.

Clearly we have a communication problem considering the recently published IPCC report indicates that 95% of scientists acknowledge humans as the cause of global warming. According to a recent literature review of 92 peer-reviewed studies published in Environmental Education Research, as we continue to portray climate change as a debate, the general public struggles to take a stance or to understand the role they can play in reducing our impact on our planet. The media perpetuates the problem by continuing to emphasize images of polar bears drifting on isolated icebergs, shrinking shorelines, and rising temperatures in degrees Celsius decades away. Combating climate change is becoming the giant, seemingly impossible-to-accomplish task on every to-do list. The due date seems far away and the current impacts appear minimal, but the more we push it aside, the less time and energy we will have to accomplish the task and the more hopeless it becomes. And the more hopeless it becomes, the less people are motivated to act.

According to a study released this week in Nature Climate Change, people struggle with committing to actions that mitigate climate change because the rewards will take decades to realize. Addressing climate change requires both individual engagement and collective action. However, without changing how we communicate about climate change, the inaction will continue. The Environmental Education Research report argues that communication needs to focus on solutions to climate change instead of its catastrophic impacts. There must be a renewed emphasis on public engagement instead of just public understanding and a focus on individual motivation and local action, such as commuting and recycling.

At the same time, the study acknowledges that individual action can be driven by political influence to gain greater yields. It’s further backed by recent “Climate Change in the American Mind” surveys. The surveys’ results indicate that while Americans are shaky about their stance on whether climate change is happening, they are much more unified in supporting government policies that can make large dents in addressing it. Eight-seven percent of Americans say government should make developing sources of clean energy a priority, 71% support providing tax incentives for purchasing energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels, 70% support funding renewable research, and 68% support regulating carbon dioxide.

Action is key, but cannot occur without individual motivation and collective will. Now that the government shutdown has ended, hopefully discussions about The Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act, also known as Shaheen-Portman, which I discussed in a previous blog post, will resume. Addressing climate change cannot continue to be buried by other priorities.