Citizen Action Monitor

US scientist talks about barriers to climate change action in America and what to do about them

Scientist Anthony Leiserowitz describes his efforts to do what Superstorm Sandy couldn’t – galvanize communities over what’s arguably the greatest single threat facing humanity

No 652 Posted by fw, January 15, 2013

This post is a heavily abridged version of the transcript of a conversation between Anthony Leiserowitz and Bill Moyers.  Subheadings have been added to the abridged post to facilitate browsing. To watch the 46-minute video of the program and access the full interview, click on the hyperlinked title below. Alternatively, watch the interview here on YouTube.

Ending the Silence on Climate Change Anthony Leiserowitz, Moyers and Company, January 4, 2013

ABRIDGED TRANSCRIPT

[Introduction by Bill Moyers]

Remember climate change? The issue barely came up during the presidential campaigns, and little has been said since. But bringing climate change back into our national conversation is as much a communications challenge as it is a scientific one. Scientist Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, joins Bill to describe his efforts to do what even Hurricane Sandy couldn’t – galvanize communities over what’s arguably the greatest single threat facing humanity. Leiserowitz, who specializes in the psychology of risk perception, knows better than anyone if people are willing to change their behavior to make a difference.

Communication with the public is difficult because the fundamental causes of the climate change crisis are invisible to us

As human beings we are exquisitely attuned to what’s happening in our immediately environment and what we can see around us and what literally touches us physically.

If you’re walking through the woods and you hear the crack of a stick behind you, your body immediately goes into a fear response, a fight or flight response. Climate change isn’t that kind of a problem. It’s not an immediate, visceral threat.

And I can say right now, this very day we can look out the window and there’s CO2, carbon dioxide, pouring out of tailpipes, pouring out of buildings, pouring out of smokestacks. And yet we can’t see it, it’s invisible.

The fundamental causes of this global problem are invisible to us. And likewise the impacts are largely invisible to us as well unless you know where to look. So it’s a problem that first of all we can’t see. And secondly it’s a problem that is seemingly faceless. It’s not like terrorists who we can imagine who are coming after us trying to kill us and challenge our fundamental values. It’s a problem that we can’t see, that’s going to have long term impacts that aren’t going to just impact us now, but impact us into the future; impact our children and our grandchildren.

Other communication barriers: Media coverage is miniscule, plus there’s a very active disinformation campaign

The media plays an enormously important agenda setting role in this, because, again this is an invisible problem to most of us. The only way we know about this is because of what we’ve learned through the media. As a normal American I don’t know a climate scientist, I don’t read the peer review literature. I only know about this issue because of what, excuse me, you, the media, tell me about it.

And so when the media doesn’t report it it’s literally out of sight and out of mind. And we’ve seen that this issue gets just a tiny proportion of the news haul. Of all the stories that the media focuses on every year climate change is miniscule. And in fact, even the environment as a category never gets above say 1 or at most 2 percent of total news coverage.

But it’s not just the amount of media coverage. It’s also the fact that there’s been a very active disinformation campaign that’s been going on for many years, it’s very well documented, that was primarily, certainly originally and still to this day, driven by fossil fuel company interests who are the world’s most profitable companies. I mean, they’re very happy, thank you very much, with the status quo, okay?

[Their] strategy was lifted explicitly directly out of the tobacco wars — which is to make people think that the science is still unsettled. And if my perception is that the experts are still arguing over whether the problem exists, as a layperson my tendency is to say, “Well, you know, I’ll let them figure it out. And you know, I’ll take this as, much more seriously once they’ve reached their conclusion.” Okay, so that has been the primary message. That has been the primary strategy of that disinformation campaign — to get people to believe that the experts do not agree.

Millions of Americans are alarmed about climate change but not sufficiently well organized to be effective change agents

People are very concerned and think this is an urgent problem, but they feel relatively isolated and alone. They say, “I feel this way, some of my friends and family feel this strongly.” But they have no sense that they’re part of over 40 million Americans that feel just as strongly as they do.

They’ve never been properly organized, mobilized and directed to demand change. And I mean, that’s what the political system ultimately responds to. There are of course many great organizations that have been advocating for change for a long time. But it hasn’t been a broad-based citizens’ movement demanding change. In that situation a relatively small but well-funded and vocal community that says no can absolutely win the day.

US Presidents can’t win Congressional support without the backing and prodding of a mass citizens’ movement

The key thing is that each time both the Clinton administration and the Obama administration tried to do this it was essentially a top-down, inside the beltway strategy. We are going after and trying to cajole and convince and persuade the members of the Senate and the House to pass this legislation without first engaging the broad public and building a citizens’ movement, an “issue public” actually demanding change. Because in the end politicians care about their job.

And if they don’t feel like there’s a political price to pay for opposing action on climate change or alternatively a political opportunity to be had by being a leader on this issue, it’s very easy for them to say, “You know what? I’ve got a lot of other things here on my plate to deal with. So until they feel that they have to act many of them probably won’t. And in fact, you couldn’t find a worse problem that fits with our current political institutions, okay. Because this is a long term problem, okay. Our government is run on two-year cycles, four-year cycles or six-year cycles.

Those time frames of decision making lead to decisions that are profitable or best in the short run but do not adequately address these long term creeping problems that turn out to be much worse when they are allowed to fester.

These are long term problems that people were warning about years and years ago and yet we didn’t respond back when the problem was relatively small and relatively easy to fix. Instead we have this tendency because of this short term myopic focus to put those kinds of problems on the back burner until they become so big it requires much more wrenching change to try to deal with them.

Two things Obama needs to communicate about climate change in his State of the Union address

[He needs to tell the American people] that this is real, that it’s human caused, it’s a serious problem but that we have the solutions in hand to do it. So, one, I would want him to carry that message.

But the second thing I would like to hear him say is that this issue has to stop being a partisan issue. The climate — the earth’s climate does not care whether you are a Democrat or a Republican. It doesn’t care whether you’re liberal or conservative. Sandy did not only destroy the homes of Democrats and not Republicans.

The terrible drought that has gripped the Great Plains and our nation’s bread basket has not only gone after liberal farmers and ranchers, it’s gone after all of us. The point is that climate change will affect all Americans no matter what your political beliefs, your religious beliefs, your race, class, creed, et cetera, okay. And in the end the only way we’re going to deal with this issue is if we come together as a country and have a serious conversation not about is it real, but what can we do about it, okay. And I think that the effort to try to de-politicize this issue so it doesn’t just become this knee-jerk– identity politics: I’m a Democrat, therefore I believe in climate change, I’m a Republican, therefore I think climate change is a hoax. This is crazy, okay. I mean, again the climate system doesn’t care.

But how do you get the Republican Party to support action on climate change?

I think there are a couple things. One is they need to look at the threat, okay. So as an example could we think in a different way about climate change as a threat to our freedoms, okay? Climate change itself is a threat to our freedoms. If you’re a rancher or a farmer in the Great Plains today, your freedom is enormously constrained by the fact that you’re in the midst of a two-year severe drought, okay. You don’t get to choose what you’re going to plant. You don’t get to choose what cows you’re going to slaughter. In fact, we’ve just seen in Texas in the past year two million head of cow, cattle are no longer in Texas, they had to move them out because they couldn’t provide the food and forage and water for them because of that drought. That’s not freedom, okay. You are literally not able to do the thing that you were raised and that you believe in as part of your culture because the climate has changed.

Another side is the opportunity side. [Republicans] have now lost two national elections, okay. And that hurts. They need to find a new way back to the middle of this country, okay. There’s an active debate happening within the Republican Party right now between, [those who want to] take this party farther to the right versus those that are in the middle that are saying there is no pathway to political success unless you can reach this new America that is quickly emerging: Hispanics, minorities, young people, women who voted in record numbers not just in 2008 but in 2012.

And if we ever want to be able to succeed at the national level again we have to find a way to appeal back to these new voters who are not responding to these far right messages, okay. So there’s enormous political opportunity. We’ll see where the Republican Party decides to move.

A new Gallup poll reveals that forty percent of people worldwide have either not heard of or have no concept of climate change. Clearly more awareness-raising is needed.

This is the Gallup world poll. It’s the first ever scientific quality survey conducted in 130-plus countries around the world. It’s a remarkable scientific achievement. And one of the things that it taught us right from the very beginning that to be honest surprised me — four out of ten people on planet Earth have never heard of climate change.

Forty percent. And in fact, when you look in particular countries, even countries that are kind of poster child countries for climate change like Bangladesh, it rises to two-thirds of people have never heard of climate change. In some countries it’s 75 percent have never heard of climate change.

Now, this doesn’t mean however that they’re not observing acutely the changes that are happening in their local systems. They are. What they lack is the concept of climate change to make sense of the observations, the changes they’re seeing in local temperature and precipitation patterns and so on, as well as the understanding of here’s what this means going forward.

How do we use this new information to change the decisions we’re making now, the kind of crops we plant, the kinds of cities we build, where we site a hospital, you know, do we build next to the coast? I mean, these societies are making enormous, you know, decades long investments, infrastructure investments, and often doing so without thinking about climate change as part of that decision making process. So globally we see that there’s an enormous need even for the building of basic awareness of the problem.

The climate change crisis is real and it’s happening now

These events are no longer abstractions. They’re no longer talking about what’s going to happen in 2050 or in 2100. Again this pervasive sense up to now has been that climate change is distant, distant in time, and distant in space. And what we’re now beginning to see is that it’s not so distant. It’s not just future generations. It’s us and it’s our own children. I have a nine-year-old son. He’s going to be my age in the year 2050. I don’t want him to live in the world that we’re currently hurtling towards.

Currently we are scheduled, unless we change direction, to go through the two-degree mark. And in fact, we’re heading on towards three degrees, four degrees and perhaps even six degrees centigrade warmer than in the past. As you go things get much, much worse.

We’re not starting from ground zero, okay. But what we haven’t had is the ability to come together as a country and clarify the choice that’s in front of us and to really help Americans engage with this issue and recognize that we as a country and as a planet are facing a fundamental threat, a fundamental challenge to the way of life that we have now and the kind of life that we want to hand on to our children.

Until we start with that conversation it’s very hard for me to see how we ultimately lead to the national policies that are going to be required, much less the international policies that are also going to be required. So I think whereas in the past we’ve treated this as an issue, that we learned about from climate science and that has basically been a few set of political leaders that have tried to impose solutions on this country, on our states, at the world from the top-down, what we have not done is build the bottom up to meet them halfway.

And until we have that bottom-up demand for [for action on] this issue…it absolutely is going to affect us either directly or indirectly through economics, through disease, through foreign challenges in faraway places. The world is now one planet. We are all interconnected in fundamental ways. And so these issues are rising the most deep questions about what it means to be a human being, and what is the right relationship that we have– and again not just to the planet but to our fellow human beings. Because our choices now are going to have collectively huge implications for the lives of our fellow travelers within the human family on this planet as well.

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This entry was posted on January 15, 2013 by in climate change, evidence based counterpower and tagged .
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