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Faculty Viewpoints

We’ve Got Climate Solutions. Now We Need a Movement.

Climate scientists warn of dire consequences if we don’t slash emissions. A majority of Americans say they are alarmed or concerned about how the climate crisis could impact their lives. And yet the systemic response is minimal and slow. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, outlines how businesses and individuals can push for action.

Climate activists in New York City earlier this month. 

Climate activists in New York City earlier this month.

Photo: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images
  • Anthony Leiserowitz
    Senior Research Scientist and Director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Q: What should people understand about climate change?

It depends on who you are. If you are someone making big financial investments in energy, well, then you need a deep understanding and access to a lot of specialized information.

If we’re talking about a common baseline for the eight billion of us living on the planet, there are five key facts. And moreover, we boiled them down to just 11 words. Scientists agree, it’s real, it’s us, it’s bad, but there’s hope. It’s deceptively simple because each phrase is a meta idea backed up with data and dozens to thousands of examples, but it’s a good shared starting point for understanding climate change.

Q: Those 11 words start with “Scientists agree.” Do we have enough scientific knowledge to move forward?

We’ve had enough knowledge of the science since about the 1950s. The seriousness of climate change may be new to many people in the public, but it is not new to the scientific community.

“The main source of uncertainty about future climate change isn’t climate science; it’s human behavior. What will we decide to do?”

There’s always more we can do to refine our understanding of climate science, but there’s scientific consensus that climate change is happening and it’s human caused. The main source of uncertainty about future climate change isn’t climate science; it’s human behavior. What will we decide to do?

Q: What do we need to do?

Here’s one way to think about it. Over the next 30 years, a billion machines that currently run on fossil fuels need to be electrified. Similar systems-level changes need to be taking place in how we source our energy, how we grow our food, how we heat and cool our homes, how we design communities, and how we move around them. Addressing climate change is a systems problem, and it will reshape almost every aspect of our lives.

The global goal is net zero by 2050. Net zero means we emit no more carbon pollution than is absorbed by our natural systems. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is a big deal because it’s a very significant investment in starting to move the United States towards a net-zero future.

The IRA also helps keep the U.S. at the forefront of the international effort. It was going to be very difficult to go to the rest of the world and say, “We’re not actually going to do anything, but you need to act.” The IRA will supercharge the conversations at the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

Q: Who will do the systems change work?

Broadly, addressing climate change is going to require government, business, and people everywhere all working together. Government can provide incentives and disincentives for individual and corporate action. But governments can’t do everything; they simply can’t. Business is going to be essential to actually implementing the changes that are needed.

The good news is that most of the new technologies, new products, new services—even the new lifestyles—already exist. In many cases, they’re already cheaper than the old systems. And they provide not only climate benefits, but a whole host of co-benefits—quality, comfort, economic and health benefits, and so on.

We’re not lacking climate solutions. We’re lacking demand for those solutions. The public and political will isn’t yet there to force the systems changes that are required.

Q: Where does that demand come from?

This is an area where there’s enormous potential for the climate movement. In our research, we find that there are nearly 100 million Americans who are alarmed about climate change. Of that group, at least 20 million are willing to join a campaign to convince elected officials to take action on climate change. They represent a really big potential issue public, which is the segment of the population that is passionate about an issue.

The NRA provides an example of what an organized issue public can do. They have an estimated four million members. There are 330 million Americans. A majority of the American public supports gun reform, but what the political system is willing to do doesn’t align with the public sentiment because the NRA punches way above its weight. They’re organized and they’re organized for power.

The pro-climate action community has invested relatively little in building an issue public compared to the fossil fuel industry, which has built a really powerful system of think tanks, political groups, and media organizations.

“Organizing for action and for power is one of the big opportunities and frankly one of the biggest needs of the climate community.”

An organized issue public focused on climate change would pressure political and private sector leaders to actually lead. It could also be important as social signaling. We’re always paying attention to what others around us are doing. One of the major ways that we learn is by seeing what other people think, say, and do, and then adjusting our behavior accordingly.

Organizing for action and for power is one of the big opportunities and frankly one of the biggest needs of the climate community. It could also help mobilize public demand for the solutions that exist.

Q: Your research has looked at how Americans understand climate change. The framework you developed is called Six Americas. Would you explain it?

For the past 15 years, we and our partners at George Mason University have been studying Americans’ viewpoint on climate change. When we started, many people just divided the public into two groups—believers and deniers. We realized that was far too simplistic.

Through a segmentation analysis, which is similar to the market segmentations that many companies do, we identified six different audiences that each respond to climate change in very different ways. We call them the Six Americas. They are the Alarmed, the Concerned, the Cautious, the Disengaged, the Doubtful, and the Dismissive.

When we last did the survey in 2021, the Alarmed were 33% of the adults in the U.S., up from 18% in 2017. The Alarmed are fully convinced that climate change is happening. It’s human caused. It’s urgent. They are very worried about it. They strongly support action. There’s a huge hunger among this third of the American public for information about solutions and how to be part of them.

The next group, the Concerned, represent 25% of the country. They think climate change is happening, human-caused, and serious, but they think of the impacts as distant in time and space. It’s about future generations and polar bears, not the United States, my state, my friends or family, not me, and not now. They support action in general but don’t yet understand why it is so urgent.

The third group is what we call the Cautious. They’re the 17% of the public still on the fence. Is it happening? Is it not? Is it human-caused? Is it natural? Is it serious or is it exaggerated? They’re paying attention but are still uncertain.

The Disengaged are about 5%. These are people who say, “I’ve heard the term global warming, but I don’t know anything about it.” They never hear about it in the media they pay attention to or from their friends, family, or coworkers, so basic awareness is the key factor for them.

The Doubtful are 10%. They say, “I don’t think it’s real, but if it is, it’s just a natural cycle. There’s nothing we can do.” So they don’t pay much attention to it.

The last group, the Dismissive, are firmly convinced climate change is not real. Many of them basically tell us that they’re conspiracy theorists. They say climate change is a hoax. It’s scientists making up data. It’s a UN plot to take away American sovereignty and other such conspiracy-minded narratives.

The Dismissive are only 9% of the public, but they’re a really loud 9%. They’ve tended to dominate the public square, and, in many ways, intimidated the other 91% of Americans who are at least willing to have a constructive conversation about climate change.

The Dismissive are largely responsible for what we call climate silence where people are reluctant to even bring it up because they’re afraid that they’re going to get attacked. The result is that many people feel, “I’m not a climate scientist. I don’t know enough of the details, so I can’t talk about it,” which is unfortunate. We can all talk about climate change. We can talk about the impacts that we’re already experiencing or the solutions that are at hand. There are countless ways to have conversations that don’t require a PhD in climate science.

Q: What can business learn from the Six Americas framework?

From a business perspective, the groups can be seen as market segments. The Alarmed are looking for ways to act on their concerns. When we ask people in the Alarmed group, “Why don’t you reward or punish companies for their behavior?” a large majority say that they simply don’t know which companies to reward or punish. That’s a huge communication opportunity and risk for companies. Companies can be leaders on climate change, or they can be vulnerable to a communication campaign calling out bad actors.

Another way businesses can think about this is in terms of the diffusion of innovations, the S-Curve of adoption we see with a new product or technology. There are pioneers, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.

The Six Americas maps onto that very well. We’ve seen the different motivations of the segments with solar panels. The early adopters knew that they were spending more for clean energy, but many wanted to do something to address climate change. Many of the Alarmed are willing to spend more for a greener product.

The pioneers and early adopters helped bring the price of solar down to the point where the Cautious or even the Disengaged might say, “I’m going solar, not because it’s great for the climate, but because it’s going to save me money on my electric bill.” Later groups, especially the late majority, are driven more by price consideration.

Each of these groups—these audiences, these market segments—are very different from one another. They need a different communication strategy. The biggest group, the Alarmed, represent 33% of the country’s adult population; that’s approaching 100 million people. They are looking for ways to make choices in alignment with their concerns about the future of the planet. That opens up all kinds of market opportunities.

Q: Would you explain the power of social norms in this context?

Social norms turn out to be incredibly important. My colleague Ken Gillingham here at the Yale School of the Environment has done studies showing that as soon as one household in a neighborhood puts solar panels on the roof, it increases the odds that another household puts up solar panels, which increases the odds that some other household puts solar panels on their roof.

Sometimes they learn via direct conversation that their neighbor likes their solar panels and likes not paying an electricity bill, but in many cases it’s more about social signaling. “Someone just like me is putting solar panels on their roof. Maybe I should too.”

Similarly, if you park a new electric vehicle in your driveway, people see it and think, “What is that? Oh, it’s another electric car. Suddenly they’re everywhere.” When it’s no longer just the Nissan Leaf, no longer even Teslas, but the Ford F-150, the biggest selling truck in America, that has a hugely popular electric version, electric vehicles are becoming part of the norm. Unconsciously, all of us register that this new thing is here; it’s a real option. The next time I’m in the market for a car, I’ll check them out.

Q: Given that human behavior is the key uncertainty and the limited demand for the solutions we already have for climate change, would you give a sense of the range of possible futures we’re choosing among?

We’re in an historic, civilizational-scale transition from an old energy system to a new one. And from an old way of using the planet and its resources to a new one. It’s not at all clear yet how successful we’re going to be.

So far, we’ve warmed a little over one degree Celsius from pre-industrial times. The absolute best-case scenario is that we don’t go beyond 1.5 degrees warming. That has been a key target that many in the international community have been focused on. We haven’t done what’s required to stop warming at 1.5 degrees.

Under current policies, we’re probably headed for about 2.6 degrees. If the pledges made last year at the international climate conferences in Glasgow are fully implemented, and that’s a big if, we might limit warming to 1.9 degrees. That’s almost a doubling of the suffering that we’re already experiencing right now.

We’re moving too slowly and too fitfully. However, 10 years ago most projections were that we were heading towards four or even five degrees of warming. That was so beyond catastrophic, it’s not even worth trying to imagine how devastating it would’ve been to human civilization and every other species on the planet.

So in the grand sweep of things, we’re already in a much better position than we were a decade ago. That trend is important to pay attention to.

So is the fact that people are hungry to know the solutions for the climate crisis. Systems change isn’t easy, but we have an adequate supply of solutions. We just haven’t yet done a good enough job communicating what those solutions are.

Department: Faculty Viewpoints