Theodore Roosevelt once said, “We are prone to speak of the resources of this country as inexhaustible; this is not so.” After more than a century we’re still acting in this manner, exemplified by our continued burning of fossil fuels.
We erroneously assume our planet’s ecosystems have an inexhaustible ability to absorb increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Case in point is Kansas HB 2636, intended to circumvent the Environmental Protection Agency’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.
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Such legislation exists despite the fact that after decades of peer reviewed research, more than 97 percent of all climate scientists accept anthropogenic climate change as a reality requiring global action. Science writer Elizabeth Kolbert, in her recent book, “The Sixth Extinction,” lays out how climate change is driving our planet’s sixth mass extinction, which could wipe out 30 to 50 percent of Earth’s species by 2100.
The changes in climate, resulting biodiversity losses and ecological system collapses will create a world vastly different from the one in which human civilization evolved and flourished. And evolutionary biologist and biogeographer Jared Diamond has recently asserted that unless we develop a more sustainable economy by 2050, we may be living in another Stone Age by 2114.
Despite all of this, a recent poll by GfK Public Affairs & Corporate Communications still finds only 33 percent of Americans are either very or extremely confident that humans significantly contribute to climate change. Why is this still seen as controversial?
Obviously the reasons are complicated, with contributing factors ranging from active disinformation campaigns driven by powerful financial interests to the sometimes less than stellar communication efforts by scientists. The message isn’t always understandable to the average lay person, or perceived as connected to our daily lives. Nor is the messenger always easy to relate to.
The question of the “message” and “messenger” bears further examination. One of the benefits of our social/cultural norms, including such things as religion, political leanings, clothing, policies, etc., is that they provide a common “language” or world view that helps establish and maintain behavioral uniformity and the cooperation necessary for groups to function.
Our shared norms also signal if one is a group member or not. And research has shown people are more receptive to a given “message” if:
a) It uses their group’s common “language.”
b) The “messenger” is perceived as being part of their group — one of their own.
Enter Showtime’s new series on climate change — “Years of Living Dangerously.” In the first episode we’re introduced to Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist who also happens to be an evangelical Christian. Hayhoe has made some remarkable headway with many of her fellow, previously skeptical, Texas evangelical Christians because she is:
a) Perceived as one of their own.
b) Tapped into their shared Christian values when framing the message.
c) Brought the message home by tying it to the drought that’s affecting their daily lives. Her first “convert” was her husband, an evangelical Christian preacher.
Getting the “message” and the “messenger” right, while not a silver bullet, will increase the effectiveness of climate change advocacy efforts and speed up policy implementations. In many ways the recent vote in the House to keep Kansas’ Renewable Portfolio Standard encompassed elements of this.
Many supporters were from the same communities as their representatives, sharing similar political and religious beliefs, and the messages communicated focused more on local economic effects and less on greenhouse gas reduction. Such successes must be rapidly replicated.
We can’t wait another century to heed Roosevelt’s advice and change the collective perception of our planet’s resources.