Building Climate Change Awareness From the Ground Up

Rudy Kahsar
Oct 13, 2016

In December 2015, 191 countries adopted the Paris Climate Agreement and took it back to their home countries for ratification.  Now, almost a year later, the agreement met the threshold standards for ratification, enabling it to go into effect.  It’s a hopeful time for climate activists, but even with ratification, much could still go wrong in meeting the agreement’s goals.  A vocal minority of climate skeptics refute the science, object to costly mitigation and adaptation efforts, and threaten to unravel recent progress.

Referendums around the world have recently exposed the tenuous link that can develop between a motivated leadership and a reluctant populace. Brexit revealed the UK’s public divide on globalization, voters in Columbia unexpectedly rejected the FARC peace deal, and in America, a looming presidential election has positioned Donald Trump as a referendum on government itself.  Motivated dissenters have repeatedly proven their resolve.  The anger of climate skeptics must be addressed before they develop into a disruptive movement around climate change policy.

The world economy emits greenhouse gasses on behalf of every human on the planet in order to provide the goods and services of the 21st century.  The negative effects of climate change, which include droughts, floods, storms, and fires, threaten communities around the world.  Solving this multifaceted problem will require comprehensive public support.  If dissenters are not brought on board with new policies aimed at addressing climate change, public backlash could result in program cancellations, non-compliance, and failures.

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As the term ‘climate-denier’ implies, awareness is not the problem in places like America.  Most people have heard of climate change and have heard arguments presenting the negative global consequences of a changing climate.  Support for mitigation and adaptation varies on political ideology and personal interest, not on understanding of the causes and effects. 

Climate scientists understand the immediacy of the problem, but communicating this urgency to the public has proven difficult.  And for good reason: the deleterious effects of climate change are big picture effects, felt far away in time and space.  In spite of this, climate change messages have relentlessly focused on the big picture.  News outlets report on the warming planet and rising sea levels; National Geographic shows pictures of glaciers melting in the arctic and polar bears floating on diminished ice flows; climate scientists talk about changing global weather patterns with increased risks of floods and droughts. 

But the average person contextualizes little of this.  No single person can feel the earth warming—it is happening slowly and unevenly.  Few people will ever travel to the artic, fewer will ever see a polar bear, and even fewer can recite average global rainfall totals.  The effects of climate change that ordinary people are asked to contextualize are physically and psychologically out of their reach.

Perhaps, rather than a top down communication strategy, a better way to disseminate the message about climate change is to build it from the bottom up.  Instead of a global focus on melting ice caps, a better approach might be to create local messages that target specific communities. 

Take for example Wisconsin’s first congressional district in the southeast corner of the state bordering Lake Michigan and Illinois.  Such a specific area contains Americans of all professions, backgrounds, races, and political ideologies.  Glaciers have not existed in the region for thousands of years, and there are no polar bears.  Instead of trying to get them to care about climate change by blaming them for carbon intensive habits, policies should instead appeal to what they care most about, namely their local environment.  These locals know the region’s weather and how the land smells in the springtime.  They would be loath to let their pristine lakes degrade into lukewarm dead zones that could no longer support cold water species.  They would shudder to think of the consequences of hotter, drier summers on the local farm economy. 

Local communities like this exist across the United States.  Appealing to personal experiences and local sentiment promises to target emotion rather than reason and trigger responsibility rather than culpability.

The downside of this approach is that targeting individual communities could diminish the global message that we are all in this together.  But this should not be of concern; the idea that we are in it together has always been only an idea.  National movements and feelings of patriotism, for example, are not based on every citizen having the exact same experiences. Rather, national collectivism stems from people feeling the same emotions around a leader or an idea.  While the environment that humans love varies widely across the great geographical portrait of Earth, appreciation for that environment is the same for everyone.

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As the earth continues to warm, public support for climate policies continues to oscillate with political and economic undercurrents.  Achieving meaningful long-term change will require shaping this undulating sentiment into unwavering resolve, because, specific policies aside, comprehensive results will require a comprehensive effort.  New approaches to messaging, such as appealing to local communities and building support for climate change from the ground up may be crucial to harnessing public effort and achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Image: Jake Gard/ Unsplash.com

Rudy Kahsar

Rudy Kahsar is a chemical engineer from Boulder, CO with a background in surface science and catalysis.

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This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, its Council, Board of Directors, officers, or members. AAAS is not responsible for the accuracy of this material. AAAS has made this material available as a public service, but this does not constitute endorsement by the association.

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