Climate change is a distressing enough prospect without the hysterical tone of the debate around it. Because extremes generate engagement, online algorithms tend to push everything to one of two sides. Newspapers pick a side to stand on and sneer across the divide. TV and radio reports, until fairly recently, would invite guests from both and get to them to argue.
All of this feeds the media machine, but of course there never were two sides. There are rarely two sides to anything, but a spectrum of opinions and people shifting one way or the other along them. Conversations or new information don’t switch people from one side to another, but encourage them a step further along. And angry and insulting conversations can push people further away from us.
The Yale Programme on Climate Change Communication suggests that, certainly in the US, it’s better to think of ‘six climate Americas’ rather than two sides. In order of most concerned, they run like this:
At the top of that ladder, you’re convinced that the climate is an urgent priority. At the bottom, you are actively opposed to climate action and committed to undermining the science and the movement. In-between are an awful lot of normal people. Some are disengaged and not really thinking about the climate at all. And some have moved up a step, to where they’re aware of the issue but not actually worried about it right now.
We can probably place friends and family members on that spectrum of opinions. We could also track our own views over time. Between the age of 20 and 25, I personally moved from Disengaged to Alarmed. (That’s when I started this blog, just shy of 15 years ago.)
Because Yale first published these categories in 2017, we can also track changing opinions over time across the population. Here’s what we see:
There are a couple of things that stand out to me in this graph. The first is that there are far more alarmed and concerned people in America than you might imagine from the media rhetoric. There’s a solid majority for climate action.
A second thing is that the sceptics are not gaining any ground. Opinion is definitively shifting towards more concerned over time, and all the growth is at the top. ‘Alarmed’ is the only growing sector, and is now the largest segment of the population.
It also looks like the higher you are up the scale, the easier it is to move further up. You have nothing to lose at this point. If you’ve been a committed naysayer on climate, the price of moving is that you have to admit you were wrong. That’s not easy for anyone, and so there’s less movement at the bottom of the graph. This may ring true anecdotally too. Certainly the people I know who are most likely to give me a hard time about climate change are apparently unconvinced by the last decade of events. The well known sceptical conference speakers and bloggers are the same as they were in 2010.
What this graph doesn’t include, however, is power. There are a lot of older white men in positions of power towards the bottom of that chart, surrounded by people who believe the same things as they do or at least don’t challenge their views. Some have held the highest offices in the country, and too many still do. Given that hold on power, is the inevitable decline in the number of ‘dismissives’ fast enough to prevent disaster?
Still, this graph clearly shows that public opinion is moving in the right direction in America. And I expect you could create similar graphs for many other places too. Now let’s translate that concern into the transformation of our fossil-fuelled systems.