Even by the standards of dire climate news, a milestone hit last week is a shocker: atmospheric carbon dioxide levels just hit their highest level in 800,000 years.
But, according to experts, most people won’t care.
In fact, according to a series of studies by Yale University and George Mason University, if you want to persuade someone that climate change is an urgent problem–the newest study in the series, released on Thursday, says voters rank it just 17th among issues of concern–atmospheric science is the last place to start.
“It’s meaningless for most people,” said one of the series’ authors, Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
To be sure, the new data is, in Leiserowitz’s words, “a really important fact.” For the last half million years on earth, carbon dioxide levels have fluctuated between 180 and 300 parts per million. On May 11, the Mauna Loa observatory measured the level at 415 parts per million.
But really important facts don’t move people. What does?
“Experiencing the impacts,” Leiserowitz said definitively. “Direct and vicarious experience. Gripping stories. Americans still see climate change as a distant problem.”
The distance is temporal (with most impacts not being felt until a generation or more), spatial (polar bears), and psychological. “People think it’s not my state, not my community, not my family, not me.”
According to Leiserowitz’s series of studies, the only effective response to that reality are real-world, close-to-home impacts like the California wildfires, record floods in the Midwest, and unprecedented droughts that farmers are experiencing.
That’s right, shouting at your uncle on Facebook isn’t going to work.
One of Leiserowitz’s studies, published last January, actually had some good news in it. It showed that roughly 8 percent of Americans say they have “recently” changed their mind about climate change, and that of that 8 percent, the overwhelming majority (84 percent) say they have grown more concerned.
What’s more, the data for that new study is actually from several years ago—before 2018’s annus horribilis of wildfires and floods. As of March, 2018, 73 percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening, and 59 percent of registered voters understand that humans are the primary cause of it.
Moreover, the change-of-opinion trend line is consistent across party lines: while Republicans remain far less likely than Democrats to understand (or “believe”) the science of climate change, the rate at which Republicans are changing their minds is roughly the same.
Overwhelmingly, that’s because of the visible effects of climate change. Thirty-nine percent of those who became more concerned about climate change said that it was due to experiencing or hearing about its impacts. Twenty percent said they took the matter more seriously, and another 20 percent said they were more informed about it.
To change their minds, Leiserowitz said, “people have to understand that this is going to harm Americans, and harm me personally. That ‘I have already experienced its effects.’”
In some ways, we’ve known this for some time. A 2009 report by the American Psychological Association observed that climate change is a casualty of the human tendency to discount future gains and losses—a well-known phenomenon with deep evolutionary roots. We’re just not wired to properly weight threats that only materialize in the future.
Everyone, though, is terrified by an apocalyptic wildfire that looks like something out of a Roland Emmerich movie.
Moreover, “show, don’t tell” means letting people make up their own minds, rather than virtue-signaling them into submission. As Hugo Mercier, author of The Enigma of Reason, recently said, changing your mind in public is actually very difficult, for a nest of psychological and sociological reasons. That’s especially true if you’re a Republican being lectured by Democrats.
Often, the best way to persuade someone is to not try to persuade them.
One challenge, though, is that one can never prove that climate change causes specific incidents like the California wildfires. Weather events don’t work that way; they have many causes, and climate change is really a matter of probability. Hurricanes and wildfires grow more probable, and thus more frequent, as the climatic system is disrupted. But it’s never a matter of simple causality.
Leiserowitz says this is the wrong way of looking at things.
“Nothing is ever caused by a single factor. For example, take the civil war in Syria. Was there a single cause? Of course not. There were multiple causes—including a record-breaking drought brought on by climate change.”
As a result, Leiserowitz says we must rephrase the question to “What are the odds that an event like this would have occurred in the absence of a global-warmed world? When it comes to the California wildfires, the odds are about 1 in a million.”
Leiserowitz says we think this way all the time. “You can’t say that any one cigarette is the cause of your lung cancer. But we know that if you smoke, you’re much more likely to get lung cancer… That’s the correct way to think about this.”
Unfortunately, says Leiserowitz, “television media has done a fucking crappy, shitty job helping people connect the dots between climate change and any of these extreme events. They’ll report on fires or floods… but people don’t intuitively connect the experiences of those events to climate change.”
As a result, Leiserowitz said, climate change remains an abstract issue that many people simply don’t connect to their actual lives. In a way, the polar bears and melting glaciers are part of the problem, because they make the problem seem distant. Someone else’s.
There are other factors in climate denial too, of course.
Unlike most scientific facts, climate change has a multi-billion-dollar industry devoted to lying about it. There really is a vast, right-wing conspiracy to lie about global warming—and it has worked.
Second, climate change is perceived as a partisan issue. Said Leiserowitz, “if you’re trying to predict who is engaged with the issue, political party is a far stronger predictor than anything else.”
Given that, what, in the end, can you do to persuade your recalcitrant uncle that global warming is real?
First, if that uncle is among the 9 percent of Americans that the Yale Center calls “dismissive”—if he thinks it’s all a hoax—don’t bother. You’ll waste too much energy and won’t get anywhere.
Focus instead on the 19 percent of Americans who are either doubtful of climate change or disengaged from the issue, or on the 21 percent of Americans who are open but cautious. And for them, there are four best practices, based on the Yale/GMU studies.
One: Listen. Says Leiserowitz, “really listen to them and figure out what they care about, their underlying values.”
Two: Think about who they’ll listen to–if not you, then perhaps a scientist, or a fellow Republican, or a fellow farmer. Figure out the right messenger (or person to quote). Al Gore is probably not that person.
Three: Skip politics and focus on values. “The politics door is probably closed, barricaded, and locked,” said Leiserowitz. “If you go to somebody and talk in a hyperpoliticized way… well, good luck with that.”
On the other hand, “if the other person is a farmer, say, or a hunter or fisherman, ask if they’ve noticed any changes. Begin to lay a common ground of experience.”
That can be a doorway to a meaningful conversation about the experience of climate change, rather than the politics or science of it.
Finally, Leiserowitz underscored, “This is about building a relationship. There’s no magic word you can use… It’s about helping to lead them to understanding that this is a much larger pattern.”
That pattern has been unmistakable for decades now. The last time the atmosphere had this much CO2 in it was half a million years before humans appeared on the planet.
With any luck, your uncle might even care about that someday.