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Understanding Climate Change (Or Not)

Communication and education challenges for addressing a global issue

Melting glaciers. Polar bears adrift on ice floes. Ask many people what springs to mind when they hear the term global warming and they’ll give you answers like these.

While seven out of ten Americans believe climate change is real, according to a recent report by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, most have a difficult time understanding how it affects them—and what they can do about it.

Last year was the warmest year on record since humans began taking the planet’s temperature. In the last few decades we’ve broken the record for warmest year six times, and, while there are variations and some downward dips, the trend continues upward. As the global climate warms, intense storms occur more frequently, and extreme weather events like prolonged droughts and massive flooding become increasingly common. Glaciers and polar ice caps really are shrinking, and the sea level is creeping up.

This is the product of human activity. Over the past hundred or so years, humans have released at an amazing rate the pent up energy stored in ancient hydrocarbons—more commonly known as fossil fuels—that took millions of years to accumulate. Beginning in earnest with the Industrial Age, prolific use of these carbon-rich fossil fuels—coal, oil, and gas within the Earth’s crust—has driven these changes in our climate. Every time one of the Earth’s 7 billion human inhabitants burns fossil fuels to generate electricity, heat a building, or fire up an engine, the carbon dioxide released in the combustion process ends up in the atmosphere.

This surplus carbon dioxide is far beyond what the natural carbon cycle can handle. Along with other greenhouse gasses like methane, carbon dioxide has shifted the balance of gasses in our atmosphere to the point where it stores more and more heat, altering the way our climate systems function and fueling extreme weather events.

So, why aren’t Americans clamoring for a legislative response to our rapidly warming world?

The international scientific consensus is clear: climate change is real. The discussion should focus now on how we are going to deal with it. The simplest response is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, what is known in the scientific community as mitigation; at the same time, we should adapt to changes that are already happening and prepare for future changes.

When it comes to reducing emissions, the critical choices we face are how much energy we use and what kind. Of course, the details of emission reduction strategies aren’t simple, because there are large social, environmental, and economic factors at play, and on a global scale. Many proposals to address climate response, including various energy strategies, have stalled out in the political process—especially in the United States—for these very reasons.

While there are effective solutions that we can all be part of, policy will be an important part of the game plan. Systemic changes in a democratic society rarely make it through the policy maze unless driven by sustained public demand. When the public is confused or ambivalent about an issue, cautious policy-makers are reluctant to take risks, and we don’t see much in the way of advances.

Pollsters explain that issues rise toward the top of the public agenda when people see an issue as both urgent and salient. Urgent issues are those that demand immediate attention. The call for changes in gun policy after the Sandy Hook School tragedy is an example of a tipping point in public demand for change following a string of tragedies.

Saliency is a term that describes how closely an issue relates to a person and their concerns. Do I care? Does this issue affect me, or my family, in some direct way? And if it does, is there anything I can do about it?

Climate urgency is different in that the cumulative impacts are only beginning to take shape in some peoples’ minds, while others see the threats as far off in the future. Single events such as hurricane Katrina, superstorm Sandy, and last summer’s drought are consistent with climate change projections.

Yet discussions of these catastrophic events generally aren’t connected to the larger issue of climate change. As such, the issue hasn’t attained a level of urgency beyond a vague concern for safety.

For many people, energy issues are primarily about the price of gas at the pump or the electric bill, and climate remains abstract. Other than as a personal pocket-book issue, many can’t see themselves as directly affected by—or as part of the solutions for—larger energy strategies. It takes another leap to connect energy choices to climate solutions.


• • •

Let’s go back to those images of melting glaciers and drifting polar bears. It turns out that such images really are what spring to mind when Americans hear the term global warming, according to research from Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale’s Project on Climate Change Communication.

While these images are not inaccurate, they do point to a problem in our grasp of climate change according to University of Wisconsin–Madison professor of journalism Sharon Dunwoody, who also studies attitudes towards climate change. In researchers’ lingo, climate change is what is known as an impersonal risk, says Dunwoody: a problem vast in scale, somewhat abstract, and, for many, not easy to relate to their own lives either in terms of causes or mitigation.

“What [Leiserowitz’s research] suggests is that people understand—if they believe climate change is occurring—that it’s affecting something. But that something is not them,” says Dunwoody. “If you don’t think a risk affects you personally, it becomes much harder for folks to make that risk important to [them] and catalyze behaviors. You think, Why should I care?”

In order to better understand how people respond to climate change issues, Leiserowitz and colleagues developed a framework called “The Six Americas” that places citizens on a spectrum from “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change at one end to “doubtful” or “dismissive” at the other. In the middle are those categorized as “cautious” or “disengaged.”

People in the “alarmed” category are very concerned about climate change, convinced that human activity is the main cause, and believe that much more should be done by individuals, governments, and corporations to combat it. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the “disengaged” doubt climate change is happening or, if it is, believe that natural causes are at work.

The impersonal nature of climate change is only one obstacle to combating it. Factor in many Americans’ innate optimism (“the problem can’t be that bad”), a feeling that climate science is not settled, and a dearth of science journalism, and you have a few more ways in which taking action on climate change becomes more difficult.

  - - -

Surely the road to addressing climate change starts with people educating themselves on this issue? One might think so, but this isn’t always the case. While it seems logical that people would seek out reliable information, digest that information, and then act on it, that’s wishful thinking, according to UW–Madison science communications expert Dietram Scheufele. Scheufele has built a career studying the ways in which science is communicated to the public.

“The idea that our daily decisionmaking is influenced heavily or even significantly by [complex] information is unfortunately naïve,” he says. “Most of us make decisions about most things in our lives in a depressing absence of information. We do things based on shortcuts and mental crutches. The more complex the decisions get, the more we rely on these things.”

Like stem cell research, notes Scheufele, climate change is an issue that touches on a variety of cultural flashpoints, allowing different segments of the population to perceive it in different ways.

“Climate change is an issue that is not just a scientific issue,” he says, “but an issue that bridges science, society, and, to a large degree, politics.”

On top of these flashpoints are political leaders, media, and the lay public joining the conversation with varying levels of understanding—and different vocabularies.

“They all talk a different language [based on their perspectives], and they talk past each other,” says Scheufele.

In the midst of this cacophony, people’s views on climate change cluster rather predictably around political fault lines. In part, this happens because we all tend to make judgments based on our pre-existing political leanings or mental shortcuts.

Sharon Dunwoody shares Scheufele’s view of the inherent challenges of communicating a complex subject like climate change to the general public, noting that most people end up relying on mental shortcuts called heuristic defaults when faced with a lack of knowledge or capability for understanding.

“We may feel guilty that we don’t have positions on things that other people are concerned about. But rather than gathering information, most of us are heuristic information processors; we’ll just accept one person’s information, like your doctor,” says Dunwoody. “When confronted with the need to have a position, it’s easy to default to the positions of other people like us. That’s why ideology is such a potent predictor of whether you think climate change is happening and whether human beings are making a contribution to warming.”


• • •

Even for those motivated enough to seek out reliable news and information on climate change, it’s not as easy as it once was to find science news that is readily accessible to non-specialists.

“We used to have all these science writers, and their numbers are dwindling,” says Scheufele. “Historically, we’ve had people boil down complex things into a 300-word piece you can read over breakfast and still make a fairly informed decision, but science sections have gone away in small papers, and then they went away in mid-sized papers.” Now, as science writers disappear from the pages of even the country’s largest newspapers, we are losing what Scheufele calls “the conduits that have connected complex science to the lay public.” Online sources are filling some of that void, but the world of science journalism is still very much in flux.

And then there is the rise of organized disinformation—or, at the least, the sowing of deliberate doubt—about climate change, a phenomenon detailed in the program “Climate of Doubt,” which aired as part of PBS’ Frontline series in October 2012. The show’s host, award-winning journalist John Hockenberry, profiled the organizations, books, and conferences that take aim at climate science on grounds ranging from allegedly fishy science to a loss of jobs and personal freedom.

Authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway covered similar ground in their award-winning book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (2010).

This purposeful sowing of doubt, at a time when no widespread doubt exists in the scientific community, has had effects in the world of journalism, leading to what many observers see as a sense of false balance in reporting. Even when reporters know that climate change science is sound, they persist in finding a spokesperson (not necessarily a scientist) to represent an opposing viewpoint.

“Readers and viewers have gotten the message that nobody knows what’s true,” says Dunwoody. “There’s almost total consensus among scientists about the rise of climate disruption and the role of humans [in causing the problem], but a sample of Americans will tell you that scientists disagree. I think ‘balance’ has been something of a disservice.”


• • •

While factors like the politicization of science, organized misinformation, and the dwindling of science journalism are all barriers to communicating climate change and appropriate responses, there are many lessons from the social and cognitive sciences about how to move forward.

Some of these lessons involve ways of changing behavior that rely not upon the accumulation of more and more scientific information, but by illustrating how people can save money and the environment at the same time.

Kathy Kuntz, executive director of Cool Choices, is on the front lines of this promising work. A nonprofit organization with a vision for Wisconsin to be the national leader in achieving significant greenhouse gas emission reductions through voluntary action, Cool Choices seeks to make responsible, sustainable choices easy and fun. The organization also strives to show citizens and businesses alike how their small actions create large collective impacts.

Kuntz’s work reflects the view that while no one among us can save the planet single-handedly, we can mitigate climate change and use our precious energy resources more wisely by adopting actions that save money and conserve energy.

Cool Choices was created as a result of the Governor’s Task Force on Global Warming, convened under Jim Doyle, Wisconsin’s governor from Janurary 2003 to January 2011. While most recommendations of the task force were never implemented, the concept of Cool Choices had near-unanimous support and went forward.

“Everybody agreed that there was a need to address behavior,” says Kuntz, who previously led Focus on Energy, a statewide energy efficiency program funded by Wisconsin utility companies.

Kuntz describes the paradoxical world in which modern energy consumers find themselves: in many cases, the things we buy are more efficient, yet we’re still using more energy than ever. A fridge purchased today might use about a third of the kilowatt hours its avocado-green 1970s counterpart did, but we have such a profusion of gadgets—and things like programmable coffee makers with clocks that use energy even when the machine is not in use—that energy use has risen.

Similarly, “Vehicle efficiency has come up dramatically in the last forty years, but we drive more,” eating up potential energy savings, notes Kuntz.

Making a dent in these problems involves a multi-pronged approach: helping people understand their energy use, showing how small actions can have big impacts, and tapping into the power of social norms.

Cool Choices works with a range of entities to drive change, from corporations to schools to other nonprofits. One project took place at Gundersen Lutheran Health System in La Crosse, which has initiated its own large-scale initiative to become energy independent. My Envision, a game for employees created by Cool Choices and Gundersen Lutheran, brings that big-picture awareness of energy to the individual level.

“We’re working with companies to help them transform employee culture around sustainability,” says Kuntz. “For us, Gundersen was really a perfect partner. They’re on a path to be energy independent by 2014 across their entire health care system in three states, which is huge.”

The My Envision game helps individual employees connect to company-wide goals, encouraging them to make smart choices both at work and in their personal lives.

Workplace games are designed with input from people within the company, ensuring that they will be relevant to employees and not merely something foisted upon them. During the threemonth period that the game took place at Gundersen, employees collected points for positive actions, such as wise use of energy and water at home.

Commented one Gundersen employee, “[MyEnvision] has really made me aware of my surroundings with things I can do just in my own little world to conserve and help my environment.”

MyEnvision helps to shine a light on habits that may seem small and harmless, like tossing a paper coffee cup into a medical waste bin because it’s closer than a recycling bin, but add up to a noticeable negative effect. Gundersen Lutheran sells its paper recycling, which brings in revenue while helping the environment. It’s expensive to dispose of medical waste, so chucking in things that don’t belong is neither “green” nor good business practice.

Cool Choices games at places like Gundersen Lutheran and Miron Construction Company in Neenah have been successful because they tap into the power of social norms, a phenomenon also studied by UW–Madison’s Dunwoody. In this case, one might think of social norms as a kind of positive peer pressure, encouraging people to make wise choices because those around them are, too.

Kuntz cites city recycling programs as one example of how social norms operate.

“The way we recycle now is very public,” she says. “On trash day, we can all see that everybody in our neighborhood is or is not putting out two bins that are different colors. That reinforces a powerful norm.”

Yet while that kind of green habit is very public, other habits are hidden.

“You don’t know if your neighbors keep their tires inflated on their car, or how often they leave the vehicle idling, or what somebody’s water heater temperature is set at. There’s all these pieces that add up that are hard to see without doing something very deliberate and leveraging that social norm, which is essentially what we are trying to do with our games. We’re making these invisible behaviors visible.”

Understanding some of the barriers to climate change action will help people better find their place in both the problem and solution.

And while social norms are only one part of the communication and education toolkit we’ll need to tackle climate change, Dunwoody notes that they are an extremely effective way to make impersonal risk much more personal. Even if you don’t personally care about an issue or problem yet, you may see that others around you are concerned and taking action, causing you to also adopt their actions.

“You can get changes in people’s behaviors that precede [changes in] beliefs and attitudes,” Dunwoody says.

This belief-following-behavior approach connects to Dietram Scheufele’s thoughts about navigating the rocky political landscape surrounding climate change. “Who’s right and who’s wrong is irrelevant,” he says, “if we can agree on sensible steps to take.” 


Jennifer Smith is the former program and publicity director for Academy Evenings, the Wisconsin Academy's series of thought-provoking public talks featuring leading thinkers, researchers and artists.  She has previously worked for Wisconsin Public Television, where she was part of the team that developed and launched PortalWisco

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