Climate change splits the public into six groups. Understanding them is key to future action
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In Australia there is now widespread public acceptance of the reality of climate change; we seem to see its effects almost hourly.
But the electorate still votes for political parties with environment policies that I would call recalcitrant, and with significant groups of climate deniers in their ranks.
The issue of climate change has become a battle of ideologies, values and worldviews, something that has become much more pronounced in the last decade thanks to our political class and to parts of the media.
Knowing what we know about human beings, our psychological and evolutionary makeup, there’s no evidence that these divisions are going to be broken down by more scientific evidence or just the passage of time — not that we have much time to spare.
And we should not assume that as climate change becomes worse, these divisions will start to heal.
For these reasons, I have long been keen to understand the ways people respond to climate change — and the language we need to use to convince people to take action.
Six groups of people
Last year I spent time with researchers at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which has conducted countless scientific studies on public opinion and behaviour around climate change.
Much of what they do is informed by the Six Americas study, a segmentation first conducted in 2009.
It measures the American public’s climate change beliefs, attitudes, risk perceptions, motivations, values, policy preferences, behaviours — including voting patterns and media consumption — and underlying barriers to action.
It groups the public into six different segments, varying in size and well differentiated in terms of their attitudes to climate change and their views about action.
- The Alarmed: This group is fully convinced of the reality and seriousness of climate change and already taking individual, consumer, and political action to address it.
- The Concerned: This group is also convinced that the globe is warming and that it’s a serious problem, but have not yet engaged with the issue personally, including not always voting for political parties with strong climate policies.
- The Cautious, the Disengaged and the Doubtful: These groups represent different stages of understanding and acceptance of the problem. None are actively involved.
- The Dismissive: This group is very sure that climate change is not happening, and often actively involved as opponents of a national effort to reduce emissions. Some of them are in significant positions of power in government, industry and the media.
As someone who has spent about 15 years listening to Australians talk about climate change, this approach immediately resonated with me. It made sense.
The qualitative research I’ve done has revealed the extent to which attitudes about climate are informed not by an understanding of science, but by world views, values, political identification, social and cultural conditioning and gender identity.
As I contemplated this Six Americas study, the mammoth task of the climate change movement was taking shape in my mind.
We need to increase the Alarmed cohort, absolutely no doubt.
But we also need to develop and hone their skills of talking to others not of the same mindset.
And we need to provide social and emotional support as many of them — many of us — struggle with feelings of grief, dread and burning anger about what’s happening to the planet and the response of many of our political leaders.How spending $200 a year could help prevent climate change
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We need to shift more of the Concerned group into the Alarmed group.
We need to find a way to convince the Cautious that urgent action is necessary.
This, very difficultly, often requires language that isn’t fraught with tones of crisis. More on this in a moment.
We need to engage the Disengaged — probably the hardest task of all, because it requires us to rebuild their faith that our democratic institutions are capable and willing to do something about it.
And finally — in my opinion, and I say this with no trepidation whatsoever — we need to drive the Dismissive group out of positions of power in our government, stop the flow of their donations into our political parties, and find smarter ways to engage with them in the media, including social media.
What underpins our response to climate change?
There is an Australian version of the Six Americas study, led by Donald W Hine from the University of New England.
It took a similar approach and came up with five groups — which echo the Yale segments but without the Disengaged.
It was conducted in 2013 — a relatively long time ago given all that’s happened since — but remains highly valuable because it takes into account a broader range of cognitive and emotional factors that underpin human responses to climate change.
- How close do people feel to climate change effects?
- Do they see local manifestations or not, and do they identify them as being connected to climate change?
- Do they feel an emotional connection to nature?
- How much do they trust climate change authorities or authorities in general?
- How much do their self-reported feelings of shame, guilt, anger and fear condition them to respond in certain ways to the climate change issue and remain open or closed to solutions?
These are now the questions I ask myself in the process of developing, conducting and analysing any research on climate change.How climate change has impacted the world since your childhood
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I’ve also spent a lot of time wondering about the efficacy of the language around climate change, around emergency, crisis and urgency.
The facts of climate change and the need for rapid response absolutely merit these terms.
To not use them seems to be more than a sin of omission but an outright lie to the public about the scale of the threat and what’s at stake.
Those in the Alarmed group feel more than comfortable with this message.
Some of the Concerned group respond well to messages of urgency, and others not so well.
But the language of crisis and emergency can actually turn off those who are Disengaged and Cautious, and make them more critical of attempts to address climate change.
These people can have a strong belief that the issue is overplayed by the media and “politicised”.
They dislike the gloom and doom tone of the debate, its remote and inaccessible language, and the fact they feel guilty and depressed when listening to climate change messages.
They rightfully question whether our political and business leaders have the capacity or the desire to ensure that any transition to an economy built on renewables doesn’t penalise already struggling groups in our society.
My research has taught me important lessons about climate change communication: be solution-focused and positive, understand the values of the people you are trying to convince, do not fuel division and conflict, and relate solutions to our sources of happiness and common concern.
The challenge is how to activate cooperative values rather than competitive values.
In my view, we must stress what we have in common: the desire for secure work, safe neighbourhoods, a good standard of living, security and happiness — whatever that might look like for different groups of people.
A transformative moment
We also need to find ways to shift those in the large Concerned segment into the Alarmed cohort.
A moment from my own recent past shows it is possible.
In December 2018 I woke up, made myself a cup of coffee and turned on the TV.
I saw hundreds of teenagers skipping school and protesting in the streets about climate change, with handmade signs that spanned from the serious and angry to the humorous and profane.
“There are no jobs on a dead planet.” “You’re burning our future.” And my favourite: “Why should we go to the school if you won’t listen to the educated?”
As I sat sipping my coffee, I thought to myself, “Good on those kids telling the powers that be, the older generation, that they need to do more about climate change.”
And then it hit me. At almost 50 years of age, I am part of that older generation, part of that generation with a platform and a voice some of these young people don’t have yet.
It was as if those teenagers were speaking to me.
In that moment something shifted inside me, a sensation hard to describe and yet I can recall it now with clarity. It actually felt physical. I felt like they were telling me to do something.
And so I made a decision at that moment to put climate change at the heart of everything I do: in my work, as a parent, as a consumer, as a citizen.
It’s a factor in every decision I make about the research jobs I will accept, about the energy that I will have in my house, about the transport that I will take, about the food that I will eat and about where I will invest my superannuation.Subscribe to the podcast
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This transformative moment, the moment I tipped from concerned to genuinely alarmed, didn’t happen because I read an ICCP report or sat through a presentation from a climate scientist about CO2 levels.
I reacted to a crowd of children holding up signs in the streets, girls who were only a few years older than my eldest daughter. Suddenly it became very personal.
That I can make a contribution to this movement, probably the most important in our history, is such a relief to me and helps me manage the angst that overwhelms me from time to time in the night.
My first task is to understand how we maintain our optimism as we move deeper into a climate change-affected future.
I, we, can protest, change the terms of our super fund, install solar panels, and vote for parties with strong climate policies — or any climate policies, really.
But one of the most important things we can do is understand why other people feel the way they do about climate change, and learn to talk to them effectively.
What we need are thousands, millions, of everyday conversations about climate change.
That will help enlarge the ranks of the Concerned, engage the Disengaged and make the Cautious more convinced of the need for action.
This will then expose those who dismiss both the science and the solutions, the denialists — who are today a minority, albeit a powerful one — as what they are: out of step with the rest of us, determined to put our collective wellbeing and our way of life at risk.
We must not let their voices be the loudest in the public arena.
We must create a chorus of different communities united in asking, indeed demanding, that we act now to preserve a liveable world and a viable future.
This article is an edited extract of the MSSI Oration given by Rebecca Huntley at the University of Melbourne. It was recorded and broadcast by ABC RN’s Big Ideas program.
Dr Huntley is one of Australia’s foremost researchers on social trends. She is an adjunct senior lecturer at the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. She also presents The History Listen on RN each week.