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How to wake people up to the risks of climate change

Speaking Sustainably

How to wake people up to the risks of climate change

Image with world in an hourglass and an alarmclock
ShutterstockGreenBiz Collage, Mert Toker with cigdem

We’re doing some deep, interesting research work for one of our clients around risk. We’re exploring to what degree real and perceived risk can get in the way of people taking action on energy efficiency. This work has led us to think a lot about how perceptions of risk can get in the way of people taking action on climate change.

We already know we’re in the middle of a cultural shift on the environment. According to our last EcoPulse survey, 85 percent of Americans think the average person should be taking steps to reduce their impact on the environment. Forty-one percent of us want to be seen as someone who’s doing that/buying green products and 25 percent can name a brand they’ve purchased — or not purchased — because of the environmental record of the manufacturer.

So, we’re changing shopping behaviors — a critical insight for corporate America — but we’re not really changing personal behaviors. Recycling rates are down. Millennials, who absolutely see corporate America as responsible for taking action for people and the planet, are willing to get loud on social media about it and adjust their shopping behaviors accordingly, but they’re also the least likely of all age cohorts to turn the water off while they brush their teeth or flip the lights off when they leave a room.

Meanwhile, according to this year’s Energy Pulse, only 15 percent of Americans actively deny climate change is happening. The remaining 85 percent believe it’s real, although some of those are on the fence about whether it’s man-made. (A takeaway about that: If your teenager is in a car wreck, your first question isn’t, "Whose fault was it?" Your first question is, "Are you OK?" This is how we need to talk about climate change — stop focusing on whose fault it is and start focusing on what to do to deal with the emergency.)

This is truly not a partisan issue anymore. When we see big stats in our data such as 85 percent of people agree something’s going on with the climate and that 85 percent of millennial parents in America feel anxious about the impacts of climate change in their children’s lifetimes, the sheer size of those percentages makes it clear that it’s not just a bunch of Democrats.

So, to recap: Belief in climate change, anxiety about climate change and a belief that people should be taking concrete steps to lighten their environmental footprint are all largely American beliefs, maybe even American values.

But we’re not changing our behaviors. Why is that?

In a study released by the Yale Program on Climate Communication back in 2017 and covered in a New York Times article, "How Americans think about climate change in six maps," the following point is made:

Global warming is precisely the kind of threat humans are awful at dealing with: a problem with enormous consequences over the long term, but little that is sharply visible on a personal level in the short term. Humans are hard-wired for quick fight-or-flight reactions in the face of an imminent threat, but not highly motivated to act against slow-moving and somewhat abstract problems, even if the challenges they pose are ultimately dire.

Our risk research has confirmed that people discount the future at a higher rate than the present. This makes it really hard for them to feel the dire riskiness climate change presents because many of the impacts won’t be seen for a long time (although action is required now to prevent them.)

But we also see how quickly that can change when the results of climate change are seen in the present. Those living in coastal areas in which floods and fires are becoming more dangerous and common are perceiving much more risk around climate change, meaning they’re much more likely to take action (and demand action from other parties).

We have some hypotheses about how to shift more people to that idea.

For starters, something we think we’re starting to see in our data — it’s too early to tell — is that there are two kinds of risk: actual risk and perceived risk. We’re not responding to the actual risk climate change poses because of what The New York Times pointed out — it’s just too removed, too far away, etc. On the other hand, perceived risks are just that, perceived. Those perceptions are created and shaped by circumstances and messaging, which means we can shape them.

The tricky thing — and I don’t have the magic answer yet — is figuring out what messages will create a strong enough perception of risk that people will change their behaviors and, ultimately, flat out refuse to buy products from companies that aren’t aggressively tackling climate change. Lots of research over the years has been done that demonstrates that fear/scare tactics don’t work (we’ve tested these kinds of messages as well and seen first-hand that most people recoil from them), even though that seems the obvious approach if we’re trying to sound the alarm to get people to see the real risks climate change poses to one’s own life and family.

We intend to do more work on this in 2020 and, of course, we’ll report out what we find. Our current hypothesis is that maybe it’s not just the message but the messenger. For instance, do people younger than 25 hear Greta Thunberg’s message and clearly understand the risks climate change poses in their lifetimes? Whereas people older than 50 tend to think she’s "just a kid who doesn’t know anything" or feel parental and proud of her — but they don’t really internalize her message? Can Greta move certain people to change? If so, what message and which messenger can move others? What’s our best way of leveraging humans’ hard-wired fight-or-flight response by illuminating imminent risks?