Massachusetts has set an ambitious goal when it comes to combating climate change: the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act mandates an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by the year 2050, and an interim reduction of 25% this decade. Achieving those goals will require broad public support for carbon-cutting policies, plus widespread personal action.
A recent survey found that, while most Massachusetts residents say climate change is and has been happening, the Commonwealth is still a long way from embracing a “culture of climate protection.” The authors of the survey break the population into four distinct segments, each presenting its own challenges and each demanding approaches tailored to their views, behaviors and demographics.
1. The Convinced: Everybody’s doing it
Fully a third of Massachusetts’ residents are already Convinced that human-caused climate change is happening, that it presents a real and present danger, and that individuals and governments need to do more to address the problem. But the actions of the Convinced don’t always match their convictions; the Convinced are no more likely than anyone else to be taking steps to reduce their personal carbon footprints. The authors of the survey say this may be because people don’t fully appreciate how important and effective individual actions can be, and because people – regardless of their beliefs – are often hesitant to take action until they see others doing the same.
The challenge here is to convince people that their actions count, and that others are doing their parts. Very few survey respondents said they were familiar with policies and programs currently in place – like the Global Warming Solutions Act, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (a ten-state cap-and-trade program for carbon dioxide emissions), and the Massachusetts Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2020. So that’s one area where there’s an opportunity for raising awareness.
But survey respondents also said that they didn’t think individuals were doing as much as they should to combat climate change. One approach to changing this perception is building partnerships and facilitating collective or community action. I spoke to 350.org founder Bill McKibben last fall and he explained the philosophy behind 350.org’s incredibly successful days of action – get people working on local projects with concrete results, but do it at the same time all over the world so it’s clear the effort is contributing to a larger movement. The recognition that follows – highly publicized slideshows and virtual art exhibits – can’t hurt either.
Of course, one day of action each year won’t cut carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050. That will require sustained daily action, and that’s much more difficult to foster. But it’s worth remembering that half to three-quarters of the Convinced are already working to reduce their carbon footprint and voice strong support for energy-saving policies. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for improvement – just 10-15% of the overall population.
2. The Receptive: Red alert!
The Receptive are much like the Convinced, just less so. They think climate change is happening, and that human activity is at least partly to blame. But they see the impacts as less severe and more removed. Here, the challenge is clear: raise awareness about the present-day, real-life impacts of climate change and the potential severity of future changes. But the message needs to be carefully crafted, coupling information about the threats of climate change with feasible, empowering solutions. Research shows that dire warnings alone can actually fuel rejection of the ideas being presented.
3. The Dubious: Reality check
The Dubious are a bit of a mixed bag – they might think climate change is happening but not human-caused, or they might not think climate change is happening, or they might just not know or care. What’s called for is some seriously skillful and creative communication about the basics of climate science. Again, a carefully crafted message is key. But finding the right messengers might be equally important.
Together, the Receptive and the Dubious make up fully half of the population. And since these groups are less likely than either the Convinced or the Dismissive to be taking action to reduce their individual carbon dioxide emissions, efforts to influence the views and behaviors of these in-betweeners could yield big gains in the area of energy conservation.
4. The Dismissive: Forget about it
The Dismissive are the furthest from embracing a “culture of climate protection.” They do not recognize that human-caused climate change is a problem. Quite the opposite, they are convinced that climate change is not happening. And experience show that efforts to convince them otherwise may well fall on deaf ears.
And yet, the Dismissive are every bit as likely as the Convinced to take personal actions to reduce energy usage. So if energy conservation and clean energy development are the end goals, identifying what already drives the Dismissive to conserve and then playing on those themes might well be the most effective strategy. Indeed, an energy- rather than climate-focused strategy has been gaining traction with everyone from bloggers like Andy Revkin to energy conservation groups (the Climate and Energy Project is a successful example), even President Obama.