Alarmed – with good reason

As Australia is heading for the mother of fear campaigns for the next election it is significant that in the USA – home of fear, loathing and negative campaigns – voters are becoming alarmed about the most fundamental threat (other than nuclear war precipitated by Trump sitting on the button) to the future of our world.

The evidence for this comes from the joint attitudinal research project on climate change communication from the Yale and George Mason University project which the blog has mentioned often in recent years. This is increasingly being complemented by Australian climate change communication research undertaken by the Monash University Climate Change Communication Research Hub, headed by Dr David Holmes, and other universities in Australia and around the world.

The Yale-GMU research which started in 2008 segmented audiences in terms of “six unique audiences within the American public that each responds to the issue in their own distinct way.” The segments are: the alarmed who are convinced of the reality and seriousness of climate change and are already taking individual, consumer, and political action to address it. The concerned are convinced that global warming is happening and is a serious problem, but have not yet addressed the issue personally.

“Three other Americas – the cautious, the disengaged, and the doubtful – represent different stages of understanding and acceptance of the problem, and none are actively involved. The final America – the dismissive are very sure it is not happening and are actively involved as opponents of a national effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” the report says.

The segmentation is based on the fundamentals of effective communication – identify precisely the audiences involved and the “recognition that people are different and have different psychological, cultural, and political reasons for acting – or not acting – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The good news about the climate change bad news is that: “Six in ten Americans are now either Alarmed or Concerned about global warming (and that) from 2013 to 2018, the proportion of Alarmed more than doubled.”

The latest survey shows that “in December 2018 finds that the Alarmed segment is at an all-time high (29%) – which is double that segment’s size in 2013 and an 8-point increase since March 2018. Conversely, the Dismissive (9%) and Doubtful (9%) segments have both decreased over the last five years. The percentage of Americans in these two segments has declined by 12 points since 2013.”

“Although the size of the Concerned segment has remained relatively consistent since 2013, this doesn’t mean that those who were previously Concerned did not change their minds. Rather, it is likely that many who were previously Concerned became Alarmed, and many who were previously Cautious or Disengaged became Concerned. Over the past five years, the U.S. population as a whole has moved away from the Doubtful and Dismissive segments and toward the Alarmed and Concerned segments.

“In 2013, the Alarmed and Dismissive were an equal size at 14% of U.S. adults. As of the end of 2018, however, the Alarmed now outnumber the Dismissive more than 3 to 1 (29% vs. 9%), representing a major shift in these two “issue publics” most engaged in the issue of climate change.”

The authors conclude that the trends indicate that the political climate of climate change is shifting toward action – just as the trend in broader political issues is moving away from the dominant neo-liberal consensus in the so-called Anglo-Saxon countries – or the Anglosphere as Tony Abbott and other voices from the past persist in calling it, however much the multicultural reality of the UK, US and Australia makes this characterisation delusional.

The Yale-GMU team first identified the six audiences using a large nationally representative survey of American adults conducted in 2008. “The survey questionnaire included extensive, in-depth measures of the public’s climate change beliefs, attitudes, risk perceptions, motivations, values, policy preferences, behaviours, and underlying barriers to action. The Six Americas are distinguishable on all these dimensions, and display very different levels of engagement with the issue.”

Since 2008, they have conducted many additional studies on the six audiences and readers can take a quick quiz themselves to see what segment they fall into. The project team believes the quiz is cross-culturally relevant.

Meanwhile a quick Google search shows that climate change communication is a growing research priority in Australia. One example, encouraged by GMUs Ed Maibach, is David Holmes, who is the founder and director of the Climate Change Communication Research Hub based in Communications and Media Studies at Monash University.

David is also the co-editor of the forthcoming Edward Elgar Handbook in Communicating Climate Change and conducts extensive field research into audience views of climate change beliefs, literacy and behaviour response.

So despair at the news – at least as reported in much media – needs to be balanced by the climate of hope the blog wrote about recently.