Seven Reasons Why the Public is Not Engaged on Climate

The fate of climate programs and policies, both in terms of adoption and implementation, depends in large part on the level of public engagement. Regrettably, the overall lack of widespread buy-in among the American public has doomed numerous efforts in recent years.

It is important to understand why this is so; it is difficult to overcome barriers if you don’t know what is getting in the way. TRIG’s Social Capital Project has been focusing on climate communications and behavior change for the past seven years and in our experience working with nonprofit, government, and academic leaders from across the U.S. and Canada, we have identified the following seven primary reasons for why the vast majority of the public have yet to actively engage in addressing climate change.

In the coming months, Climate Access will break these reasons down, one at a time, through analysis and dialogue, including Roundtable discussions about how to address and overcome each reason. As we address each reason, we'll add links to related resources below.

1. We’re Facing an Unprecedented Risk.

A risk that is not visible, yet will have profound negative implications for our lives the longer it goes unchecked is the worst type of risk imaginable and presents new public engagement and behavior change challenges. This makes it difficult to draw upon what has worked in other movements.

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2. We’ve Overwhelmed the Public.

With a cacophony of groups, agencies and companies competing for attention, it is hard for the public to be clear on what the overall solutions are, who is responsible for implementing them and whom they should trust. The constant ask to make endless personal consumer and behavioral changes in the name of the environment is frustrating for individuals, especially when there aren’t clear feedback mechanisms, community reinforcement, and an understanding of what it all adds up to.

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3. Fatalism Has Set In. 

Even when people accept that climate change is real, if they don’t know what can be done about it and how they fit in to the solutions, the problem will seem especially overwhelming and catastrophe inevitable. There has been insufficient focus on preparing for local impacts—which can create a realistic hope for the future—and the various co-benefits of taking action to address climate are often not made clear.

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4. The Opposition is Mighty.

With major economic interests being challenged, opponents of addressing climate change are extremely well funded, well connected and willing to fight a fierce fight. The opposition has a knack for preying upon public fear and confusion; they realize that they don’t have to be right, just cause enough fuss to raise doubt.

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5. The Scientific Certainty Smokescreen.

Scientists have been sounding the alarm bell on climate for decades now, yet continuing to argue within a scientific certainty frame is not moving the climate conversation forward, and in fact, spurs ongoing skepticism. Because scientists communicate about climate risks in ways that accentuate the uncertainty remaining in the research, the fact that there is overall scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change often gets lost. This approach also fails to acknowledge how the public can experience uncertainty over climate change and its impact, regardless of the facts.

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6. It Hasn’t Been a Values Conversation.

Facts are fine, but they don’t tend to be as strong motivators as a person’s social values. Climate campaigns have largely failed to tap into values—such as duty, stewardship, self-reliance, and prudence—that can reach people who aren’t generally concerned with environmental matters. We have yet to highlight the moral imperative to act on climate; instead, one emphasis has been on the economic benefits of action, which only taps low-level values and fluctuates as the economy changes.

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7. Not Taking the Long View.

Climate change will be with us for a long time, yet most efforts to address it have been reactive, not proactive, to the latest polls, politics and events. There has been insufficient recognition of how there are many publics—each one at a different stage of behavior change—and that it takes time to move people to higher levels of engagement. It is hard to mobilize the public and sustain momentum without a long-term strategy and a sense that a movement is being built.

As we begin to delve further into these seven reasons, we’d love to hear your feedback, including suggestions for other reasons why we haven’t made enough progress engaging the public. Join the network to become a Climate Access member, which will enable you to view and post comments here and to join the discussion on this topic in the Member Forums.

Watch Cara Pike's presentation on the seven reasons why the public is not engaged on climate change at the 3rd annual Pacific Northwest Climate Science Conference.

Photo used under Creative Commons from fredcamino.

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Cara Pike