Changing the Climate Change Conversation

Posted by on Sep 20, 2012

Property damaged by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. Photo: Vern Grubinger


If I go to one more meeting about climate change where the audience is lectured about how urgent, enormous and unprecedented the challenge before us is, I am going to scream.

That’s because these meetings are largely attended by people who already understand that the climate is changing, are deeply concerned about it, and are taking some action. We come to these meetings seeking information about how to be more effective in promoting climate change adaptation and mitigation. We want to be inspired to work together to build more resilient communities in the face of uncertainty. But instead we leave feeling depressed and overwhelmed.

Being told repeatedly that this problem is big and bad does not help motivate concerned people to do more about it. It also doesn’t appear to motivate people to take action even if they are unsure about climate change and its consequences, and it certainly doesn’t stimulate a useful response among those who are highly skeptical or downright hostile to the idea.

How can we change the conversation about this issue, so more people will take action to deal with it?

A good place to start is with a fundamental rule of effective communication: know your audience.  People differ in their views on climate change as well as their reasons for acting – or not acting – to address it. It’s obvious that the climate change conversation has been politicized and views have become polarized, but it may not be so obvious that these views are not simply two opposing camps.

The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has identified six distinct groups of Americans when it comes to attitudes about climate change. The so-called Alarmed group is convinced of the reality and seriousness of the problem and is already taking action to address it. The Concerned group is also convinced that global warming is happening and a serious problem, but they haven’t engaged the issue personally. Three other groups – the Cautious, the Disengaged and the Doubtful – represent different degrees of acceptance of the problem, but none of these groups are actively involved in action, either pro or con. The Dismissive group – at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Alarmed – is very sure climate change is not happening and actively opposes efforts to address the problem.

The Yale project interviewed seven thousand people over the past five years and published 5 reports that have tracked the size of these groups and their attitudes. In March 2012, a survey found that 40% of Americans were alarmed or concerned about climate change, 25% were dismissive or doubtful, and the rest were in the middle: one-third of all Americans are cautious, meaning they believe global warming is a problem, but not an urgent one, and they’re unsure if it’s caused by humans.

The views of these different audiences provide guidance for a more productive climate change conversation, based on where people are coming from and what information they’ll be receptive to.

For example, the cautious Americans in the middle are likely to be put off if we hyperventilate about climate change. A calm approach that outlines win-win strategies that save money, build energy security, create jobs and oh yeah, just happen to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, might be an easier sell.

With some people, it may be better to avoid the mitigation conversation altogether. Although two-thirds of Americans do believe global warming is happening, less than half of all Americans believe global warming is caused by human activities. In other words, there’s a pretty large audience for an adaptation conversation that could be put off by talk of mitigation.

When it comes to adaptation, extreme weather, a clear consequence of climate change, is a good place to start, especially if we want to promote action among people who don’t want to talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In 2012 the Yale project found that 82 percent of Americans said they personally experienced extreme weather or a natural disaster in the past year and by a margin of over 2 to 1 Americans say the weather in the U.S. has been getting worse; a large majority of Americans also believe that global warming made several high profile extreme weather events worse.

Are people in the Alarmed group willing to talk about adaptation strategies, and promote greater resilience in the face of extreme weather—without getting into areas of disagreement such as the cause of climate change?

Along the same lines, a majority of registered voters across party lines favor policies to reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels and promote renewable energy. More than half of Americans say they have attempted to reduce their family’s energy consumption. This opens the door for conversation, leading to action, about how to increase implementation of mitigation practices that reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Are people in the Alarmed group willing to talk about, and promote, mitigation strategies that may resonate with people for reasons other than climate change?

When it comes right down to it, a key problem with the climate change conversation is its indirect nature. We aren’t affected by climate change per se, but by the impacts it creates, from droughts and floods, to rising sea level, to changes in the growing season and new distributions of insect pests. These impacts are things people can relate to, and act on, to increase adaptation and resilience.

Similarly, the causes of climate change are not clear to many people, even if they believe humans are largely responsible. Exactly how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas are generated by different activities and how they actually change the climate can be a source of confusion. But people are often receptive to mitigation steps that have clear benefits in their daily lives, such as practical ways to save money by insulating their homes, installing renewable energy systems, using more efficient transportation, or reducing use of nitrogen fertilizer.

One of the reasons I joined the Resilient Design Institute is to be a part of an effort that describes, develops and disseminates information people can use to make decisions that will help them cope with the challenges of changing climate. I’m done with wallowing in the data of doom, and with being lectured to about the insignificance of my individual actions in the face of catastrophe.

It’s time for new tactics in the climate change conversation. If we ever hope to make real progress in coping with the effects of a changing climate and reducing the rate of climate change we have to meet people where they are at– intellectually and culturally–to encourage action, however limited at first, by those who have yet to take any action. In this case, many little hammers may be the best way to build a broad constituency, and get us to a societal tipping point where everyone engages in dealing with this urgent issue. Did I mention it’s enormous and unprecedented?

Vern Grubinger is Extension Professor, University of Vermont. He may be contacted at

One Comment

  1. Vern – thank you for reiterating how and why the climate change conversation is not only failing to engage many, but is positively switching them off.

    A large proportion of people appear to be fatigued by the extreme words and actions of sections of the Alarmed and Dismissive camps which dominate the current climate change “conversation” to the benefit of no one but the main stream media, for whom arguments are so much more newsworthy than sensible dialogue. When such unproductive noise is being made about a global issue which, for many is so hard to get their arms around, it is not surprising that they simply tune out and carry on as normal.

    Here in western Canada, the heart of Canadian oil and gas country, the situation is further complicated by lack of room, sometimes even tolerance, for critical thinking and reasoned conversations. Environment and economy are almost always mentioned in an “either/or” tone, never “and/both”. (Sadly the social aspects are hardly mentioned at all). From the perspective of both the environmentalists on one side and industry and government on the other, you are either with us or against us. Since the industry employs so many of us, it is hard to remain balanced on the issue of fossil fuel extraction/transport and environmental impact without feeling somehow disloyal to the source of your pay check and, therefore, ultimately to your family.

    This won’t change unless and until we find alternative and far more relevant means to encourage the Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged and Doubtful to become engaged and active. I believe that is from that combined group that practical and collectively powerful action will emerge. But it is clear that the language of “cutting emissions” and “reducing your carbon footprint” is not working. Melting ice caps and sea level rise are frightening but when you live thousands of miles from it, it is difficult to draw a direct line to those effects from possible causes in your everyday life.

    You and Majora Carter are right when you say that “you have to meet people where they are at”. It is human nature for us to act when things get personal. Climate change, GDP and CAFE standards are too big to be personal. On the other hand, the buildings we live in – our homes – are very personal. The affordability, comfort, healthiness, practicality and safety of our homes can strike very personal chords and they can all be affected by choices we make if we have the right information and informed motivation to choose well.

    Maybe home is where a new climate change conversation should begin because home is “where people are at”.


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