Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, shares his insights on how to communicate to the public that climate change is real, that it’s happening, and that we can take action to effect positive change.
Leiserowtiz acknowledges that while many people are aware of the concept of climate change, the majority of people still see it as something faraway and distant that does not affect them. He also brings up what he calls the “hope gap”: those people who are aware that climate change is happening feel frustrated and scared by what they see as the hopelessness of the situation.
While the climate change challenge is real and is serious, Leiserowitz also fully believes that it is solvable. By taking advantage of “teachable moments”, providing answers, and showing causal connections, we can help people understand that climate change is happening now. Through education and teaching we can overcome the “hope gap” to solve the climate change challenge through policy, political changes, and attitude changes.
For more of Leiserowitz’s insights and thoughts on powerfully and effectively framing climate change communications, see below.
For the last decade, Anthony Leiserowitz has been tackling what he describes as the “problem from hell” – how to communicate to the public that climate change is a real thing that is happening and that they should probably do something about, unless they like famines and a world ruled by stinging jellyfish. As the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, he’s been an integral part of some of the most comprehensive research out there on how people around the world understand climate change — and why they aren’t doing enough to stop it.
Recently, Leiserowitz talked with me about polling, human psychology, and the never-ending mystery of why insulating your attic isn’t sexy.
Q. How did the work you do now begin?
A. As an undergrad, I studied international relations — specifically, cold war nuclear policy. I thought I had a long career ahead of me keeping the U.S. and the Soviets from destroying each other. Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. My international relations degree turned into a history degree overnight.
After college, I was a ski bum in Aspen. I found a job at Aspen Global Change — I was one of first staff members. Their thing was to bring together top environmental scientists — it was very interdisciplinary — for a two-week conference, which is long for a conference. There was lots of time to present, but also to go have coffee and get a hike. That’s when most of the important stuff happens. It was an incredible education. I did it for four years and I loved every minute. But at the end I was frustrated, because I felt like we were mostly talking about symptoms and not the underlying cause.
Almost everyone I met was a natural scientist, focused on explaining how human activities are affecting fundamental earth processes. But I had come from the social sciences, and I thought, “The reasons we have climate change in the first place is because of human perceptions and decision-making.” So I went back to grad school.