How to be a trusted messenger on climate change
A recent study indicates that only 40 percent of Americans believe that they will be harmed personally by climate change. Instead, most of us view climate change as a phenomenon that will affect people in another region or a future generation.
Such detachment makes it challenging to motivate meaningful action to reduce climate change. Generally speaking, we are more inclined to act if we believed our personal well-being is threatened.
Such beliefs are not all that surprising, though, as most of us go about our daily lives insulated from changes that are happening in the natural world.
And, when we do experience Mother Nature's wrath, we have a hard time telling whether human beings bear some of the blame. This is especially true when effects are transient. On one day, temperatures may set a record. On the next day, they swing back to within seasonal norms.
Even extreme weather isn’t persuasive. Because storms are so familiar to us, we tend to discount evidence that climate change is increasing their intensity and frequency. Moreover, the passage of time makes it all but impossible for us to objectively compare any two events. And when we try, our memories easily can fool us, as it’s easy to exaggerate past events in our minds — extreme weather included. Remember, the fish grows bigger every time a fish story is told.
The local angle
Unbeknownst to most of us, however, climate change is already affecting our lives and our local communities. This impact tends to vary greatly by person and by region. Some of us have experienced only minor inconveniences, while others have seen our income, health or way of life compromised.
Here are a few examples:
- In Florida and along the Gulf Coast and Atlantic seaboard, drivers often find coastal roads not passable because king tides flood them even on sunny days.
- From Minnesota to Maine, moose hunters find the number of permits halved as populations decline. Warmer winters compromise moose survival by allowing ticks to gorge unchecked on their blood.
- In the Upper Midwest, allergies sufferers contend with allergy seasons that are lasting a month longer than before.
- In the Carolinas, commercial fishermen must steam hundreds of miles farther to catch local fish that have migrated north seeking cooler waters.
- In Alaska, homeowners find their foundations are no longer stable but tilting and collapsing as the underlying permafrost melts.
- In Louisiana, coastal property owners find their land no longer livable, but instead continuously flooded as sea levels rise. Now, residents are relocating to higher ground.
- In Montana, anglers no longer find trout at familiar places along the river, but upstream in cooler headwaters. Local guides lose money when streams are closed because warmer water temperatures put too much stress on the fish that remain.
- From New Jersey to Florida, home prices in flood-prone areas have fallen as flood insurance premiums rise. Investors across the country buy mortgage-backed securities that do not price in the risk that rising seas pose to coastal property values.
Despite these impact, many of us are not aware of their connection to climate change. Communicators have an opportunity to make that connection, and by doing so, motivate action to reduce climate change’s impact. Here are three ways how:
Local impact. Climate change already has caused harm to people in many local communities. Some recognize the impact, while others only sense that something has changed. Most do not yet attribute what is happening to a changing climate. Communicators have the opportunity to engage people about climate impact, particularly those living in affected areas. One way to do so is to contrast how things were before with how they are now, and explain the role that the climate has had in making this change happen.
Trusted messengers. Climate change clearly has become a politicized issue. One way to overcome this is to tap messengers that are trusted across the political divide. For example, when it comes to the impact of climate change on human health, primary care physicians (PDF) enjoy significant public trust regardless of someone’s personal beliefs on the issue. Arguably, local guides, fishermen and others in the community whose livelihoods have been affected by climate change would make compelling messengers, too.
Broad storytelling. People who have been personally affected by climate change have a story to tell. Communicators should encourage everyone to share their stories on social media (tweet every time you witness climate change impact) or with neighbors. The more that we document the harm that climate change is having in our communities, the more compelling the message will be to those still on the fence.
Today, many of us have been personally harmed by climate change, although we might not recognize the cause. Communicators can best engage people if they focus on the impact that it has had in our local communities, and do so through a trusted messenger that transcends the political divide.