For the last decade, Anthony Leiserowitz has been tackling what he describes as the “problem from hell” – how to communicate to the public that climate change is a real thing that is happening and that they should probably do something about, unless they like famines and a world ruled by stinging jellyfish. As the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, he’s been an integral part of some of the most comprehensive research out there on how people around the world understand climate change — and why they aren’t doing enough to stop it.

Recently, Leiserowitz talked with me about polling, human psychology, and the never-ending mystery of why insulating your attic isn’t sexy.


Anthony Leiserowitz Yale

Q. How did the work you do now begin?

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A. As an undergrad, I studied international relations — specifically, cold war nuclear policy. I thought I had a long career ahead of me keeping the U.S. and the Soviets from destroying each other. Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. My international relations degree turned into a history degree overnight.

After college, I was a ski bum in Aspen. I found a job at Aspen Global Change — I was one of first staff members. Their thing was to bring together top environmental scientists — it was very interdisciplinary — for a two-week conference, which is long for a conference. There was lots of time to present, but also to go have coffee and get a hike. That’s when most of the important stuff happens. It was an incredible education. I did it for four years and I loved every minute. But at the end I was frustrated, because I felt like we were mostly talking about symptoms and not the underlying cause.

Almost everyone I met was a natural scientist, focused on explaining how human activities are affecting fundamental earth processes. But I had come from the social sciences, and I thought, “The reasons we have climate change in the first place is because of human perceptions and decision-making.” So I went back to grad school.

I worked with Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon. He’s one of the pioneers in the field of risk-perception and decision-making. “Why do human beings perceive risks? How do you communicate those risks most effectively?” When you think about it, most of the big decisions of our lives involve judging risk. Where do you go to school? Do you marry this person or not? How do you invest?

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That’s where I started. As a doctoral student, I did one of the first really in-depth national surveys on climate change, and that launched my career.

I like to call it the policy problem from hell. You could not design a problem that is a worse fit with our psychology, our ways of life, and the ways we make decisions. And yet I became convinced: This is it. This is the big one. This is the one we’ve just got to get right.

Q. It does seem like there are more people who know about climate change than there were a decade ago. What’s the most important message to get across these days?

A. It’s still critical to have people understand that climate change is happening now. Many people have this belief that it’s not happening in the United States, that it’s not happening in their state, not happening to their friends and family.

And our research has shown there is a hope gap. Even people who are most alarmed at climate change don’t know what the solutions are. Many people feel scared and frustrated and impotent. Which is patently wrong. It’s solvable.

Q. Well, then, what are the solutions?

A. That’s a very big and complicated question. Is it about reducing your own carbon footprint? If we could wave the magic wand and get everyone to insulate their attic, that would be tremendous. When you don’t insulate your attic, you’re just throwing money out the window. But that’s not sexy. It’s not buying a Tesla and parking it in your driveway so that your friends and neighbors can admire it.

But I have been incredibly inspired by some of the things people are doing. We have a national radio program that publishes a 90-second episode every day about people’s responses to climate change — we hear the voices of people experiencing the impacts, but also people solving the problem.

Q. So really, what we need is a PR campaign to make insulation sexy

A. If someone can come up with a sexy way to sell insulation, more power to them.

But in the end, the most important thing we have to do is realize this is a political problem. There is no way for individual virtuous actions to solve this problem. If all Americans reduced emissions by 10 to 12 percent, that would be huge. But that’s not going to solve it.

There is no way individual consumers can solve this. We are talking about changing the structure of our society from a 19th-century form of energy to a 21st- century form of energy. That will require changing the rules of the game. It will require changing our role as active citizens rather than consumers. It will require talking to politicians and CEOs and demanding that they answer this in a way that is commensurate with the threat.

And this has to be international. I’ve done 15 or 16 international studies on how people understand climate change. I did the first-ever study in China and in India. So much critical decision-making is going to happen outside the United States. We’ll know more in a few months after Paris.

Q. What did you find in China? Are people less aware of climate change there than in the U.S.?

A. People are pretty equivalent to Americans in terms of awareness. They’ve heard of it, but they don’t have a deep understanding. In China, they can see pollution in a way that we haven’t in decades — they’re at the stage that we were at when the Cuyahoga River caught fire. But we’ve found that even when people know about climate change, they are using the mental model of pollution — air pollution and water pollution. They think that CO2 is a pollutant the same way that smog or arsenic or mercury is a pollutant, and it’s not.

CO2 doesn’t stay local, unlike most other kinds of pollution. It travels around the earth. There’s a lengthier causal chain than seeing smoke come out of a power plant, breathing it, and feeling sick. I may be sitting in my office and the sky is blue and the sun is shining and it’s a beautiful day, but I know I’m sitting inside a volcano of CO2 because I’m inside a city.

A couple years ago, we did an in-depth study of Americans’ knowledge about climate change – the causes, consequences, and solutions. We graded the public on their answers — we couldn’t help ourselves! We’re academics! Let’s just say there were very few “A”s.

There’s a lot people don’t understand. There are Americans who think climate change will cause skin cancer. Some Americans think that the ozone hole causes climate change. People just don’t have a lot of shelf space in their head for invisible processes.

Q. So if people are so poorly suited to calculating risk around climate change, what risks are we actually good at managing?

A. We’re pretty good at tangible, concrete, simple decisions. “What am I going to have for lunch?” “Can I eat that?” “How do I get from here to work?” We make thousands of decisions every day. Things are working pretty damn well most of the time. It’s just that there are problems that we are not well built for. We are essentially Stone Age critters. We haven’t really evolved biologically in thousands of years.

Q. I’ve noticed in the last few years that the villain behind climate change has shifted from “We have met the enemy and it is us” to “We have met the enemy and it is actually just a few energy companies that are holding back the political process that could mitigate climate change.”

A. It’s long been clear that the fossil fuel industry was highly motivated to hold the status quo. In the old days of the ’90s, the oil and coal companies had a very united front, and ran groups like the Global Climate Coalition, which were instrumental in blowing up some of the earlier efforts to stop climate change, like when Bill Clinton came into office and tried to pass the BTU tax. In international negotiations, countries like Saudi Arabia were doing everything they could to scuttle negotiations. There is a longer story of major political mistakes, but there was also a very active, very well-financed fight to destroy that effort — and it succeeded.

So if you want to call them the villains, the villains have been consistent at least back to the ’90s. What has changed in the past 10 years is, that coalition has splintered. The automobile companies and manufacturing sector pulled out of it. They said, “We’re not willing to deny fundamentals of climate science.” And they left fossil fuels largely on their own.

And then fossil fuels pulled in ideological groups instead — hardcore conservative and libertarian organizations that aren’t driven by the profit motive, but are very rooted in hostility toward government. They see anything that smacks of liberalism, education, and environment as an attack on individual freedom, free markets, and capitalism.

So they combined this enormous financial clout with the passion of these ideologues. It’s like putting nitrogen and glycerin together — you create TNT. The Koch brothers are a perfect fusion of these two different streams.

That’s where we are now. And they might be even more of a problem. We are now in an environment where it is very difficult to have a rational conversation about climate change with people who think that it’s all just a conspiracy. That deeper hardcore conservative base, that has so infused Republican politics in particular, has marched the party and many of its staunchest core supporters out on this limb, very very far away from this problem and its source.

But the good news is that only 11 percent of the country are like that – what we call “Dismissives” in our report on the Six Americas. They are a loud and vocal 11 percent. They have done a good job of making themselves look larger than they are. And it’s an 11 percent that is well represented in Congress.

When a person has a deeply held belief that is very emotionally motivated, they are prone to engage in ideologically motivated reasoning — to cherry-pick and look for evidence that supports what they already believe. It’s very difficult to get them to change that view because it’s so wrapped up in their self-identity. Every time there’s a solar vortex and Jim Inhofe brings a snowball in to Congress, because, oh my gosh, it snowed in winter — that’s a Dismissive.

Then there are the Alarmed, who are about 12 percent. They are really worried about climate change, and really want to get involved — but some of them also cherry-pick, and sometimes make connections that don’t exist between climate change and things they are experiencing. Like a few years ago, that terrible tornado that ripped across Joplin, Mo. Some people were like, “Aha! Climate change!” But connections between climate change and tornadoes, let alone climate change and a single tornado — it’s not possible.

But those two groups together are only about 25 percent of the country. The middle is more likely to still be persuadable.

Q. Do the polls that you’ve been doing show any generational shift around climate change, the way that there is around freedom to marry?

A. We do not see it. I know there’s lots of common wisdom out there that says that millennials and young people care so much more about climate change. But we haven’t seen it yet.

What we find is that young people are not that different than preceding generations. Which I always try to caveat. People will say: “I’ve seen all this energy!! Young people flooding into this movement!” You can have 100,000 people flooding the trenches and not have an entire generation. The question is whether all these young advocates can transmit their passion and energy to the rest of their generation.

There are some really important differences between freedom to marry and climate change. Freedom to marry was so successful at getting people to personalize the movement. Will and Grace. People who were willing to come out of the closet and say, “I’m gay.”

With climate change, most people still think of it as distant and far away. You can’t see it with your own eyes. Nothing in your experience shows you that x caused y. It can have an impact, but that impact is small in the context of what else is going on in your daily life.

Q. But what about something like Hurricane Sandy? Or the California drought? That’s direct experience.

A. Simply experiencing an extreme event, like a flood or a drought, doesn’t provide you with the concept of climate change. We see this worldwide, where about 40 percent of adults have never heard of climate change — although they are often observing and experiencing the impacts. They often know something is changing, but they lack the concept of climate change to make sense of their direct experience. Climate is a statistical abstraction — an average of weather conditions in a specified region over a long period of time. We only know that the world’s climate is changing because of decades of scientific research and measurement.

You have to have the concept in your head, have to know that climate change can lead to more droughts and more heat waves. And then you can see it. That’s why it’s so important to have interpreters — like weathercasters — to explain how climate change is affecting local temperatures and precipitation. These events have to be interpreted to become meaningful.

If something happens once, that’s one thing. But three times — that’s the beginning of a pattern. Media plays a critical role in terms of interpretation. We live in an unbelievably complicated media environment. There are so many other topics and stories competing for our attention. Climate change stories are relatively rare.

Being there to provide the answers, and to make appropriate connections between climate change and the event — those are teachable moments. That helps builds up a network of meaning in people’s heads and helps them understand that climate change is here and now, not far away in time and space.

Q. So what actually changes people’s minds, in your experience?

A. There’s no one thing that will convince them. We’ve got to get over the idea that it’s a silver bullet. Bill McKibben once said, “We don’t need a silver bullet, we need silver buckshot.” That’s very true of climate change communication.

Human society is unbelievably rich and complex — different people, different cultures, different politics, different ways of life. It’s like that old Christian phrase: There are many roads to Damascus.

For instance, there’s a message being amplified at the moment about how we need to take climate change seriously for religious reasons — because of Judeo-Christian ideas around stewardship and creation care. This is not an argument that many scientists will use. But we see that particular road being turned into a superhighway at the moment by Pope Francis.

One message that works across all groups is the health message: “It’s not just about polar bears and plants and penguins, it’s about people.” I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t care about health. When they find out about the impacts on people, they get much more engaged. Most Americans have little to no idea that climate change has health consequences. Climate change is in one part of their brain, and health is in another.

With the Doubtful and Dismissive groups, just giving them that message once is not magic. It doesn’t suddenly convince them that human-caused climate change is real. But they don’t get angry. They see benefits to taking action that will improve people’s health, and they don’t resist as much — and that’s actually a win. You don’t have to persuade Dismissives — who tend to think it’s all just a liberal conspiracy — that climate change is real. You just have to persuade them not be in active resistance to climate solutions. Which, unfortunately, they now are.

It’s like organic food. People will buy organic for very different reasons. Some buy organic because they care about the environmental impacts of using pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer. Other people buy organic for their own health. Some people say “I don’t want my kids to eat pesticides.” Others do it for social reasons — as a way of being cool, or because of social pressure — they don’t want to bring non-organic food to a party.

If your theory of change is that everyone in the world has to have your particular worldview and values, that is going to take a very long time. Time is something we don’t have a lot of.