World leaders assembled yesterday for the United Nations Climate Summit to discuss the urgent need to address climate change, yet Americans still show little concern. A Gallup poll conducted in March revealed that only 24 percent of Americans consider climate change a “great worry,” with 51 percent of respondents indicating they worry about climate change “little to not at all.” In a polling list where participants ranked a set of 15 national problems, climate change came in at second to last.
This lack of concern over a threat that Secretary of State John Kerry has deemed as grave as ISIS or the Ebola outbreak is perplexing. In a 2011 issue of Ecology and Society, Janis L. Dickinson wrote about the human response to climate change, stating “only direct experience with adverse outcomes leads to behavioral change.” Because the effects of climate change have yet to be realized in their entirety, people are more prone to fret over problems with visible effects, such as the economy, unemployment, and healthcare, which were the three issues Americans were most concerned about in the Gallup poll.
Is there a cure for this apathy? While it is easy to suggest a lack of climate change awareness is the culprit, Dickinson is quick to point out that general awareness is not synonymous with activism. Citing previous studies, she writes that increased awareness can influence short-term action, but these behavioral changes are not sustainable for the long term. The key is to generate long-term action and engagement.
At Nexight Group, my colleague Sarah has written about the effect climate change communication has on public response. Many pieces about climate change have focused on its catastrophic impacts. Instead, communication should share solutions to climate change and emphasize public engagement.
Former Vice President Al Gore is leading the charge to change apathy to activism with his new initiative, “Why? Why Not?”, which engages young people via social media platforms to inspire world leaders to act on climate change. Their efforts will culminate in an international agreement on reducing carbon emissions to be signed at the 2015 United Nations Convention in Paris.
The Climate Reality Project, a non-profit that leads this initiative, is also seeking to inspire action around the country and throughout the world. The Project is responsible for recruiting over 300,000 people in New York City this past weekend for the People’s Climate March, where citizens marched to entreat political leaders to act on climate change.
Slowly but surely, citizens are realizing the need for sustainable action on climate change, but time is of the essence. As President Obama remarked at yesterday’s UN Climate Summit, “The alarm bells are ringing. We cannot pretend we do not hear them.”