"I feel a personal sense of responsibility to help reduce global warming"
Research finds correlation between felt responsibility and pro-climate behavior
When someone causes a problem, they generally feel some responsibility to fix it. In the realm of climate change, this piece of common sense has been verified by study.
Recent survey research from the Yale Program for Climate Change Communication has found a positive relationship between feeling responsible for global warming and a likeliness to engage in pro-climate behavior. People that affirmed the statement “I feel a personal sense of responsibility to help reduce global warming” were more likely to “engage in climate change-related political behavior.” Such behavior includes activities like joining a campaign or supporting pro-climate presidential candidates.
While this may seem trivial or common sensical, it is important to actually test and study these hypotheses to see whether or not they line up with reality. There have been plenty of unintuitive social phenomena before, and there will surely continue to be more in the future, especially in relation to scientific concepts. Research to test one’s priors should be lauded.
This study also stands in importance because it pushes back, to some degree, against a pervasive attitude in climate circles: “70% of all emissions from 100 companies,” or something like that. Generally thrown around to decry personal action, this phrase contains truth, to be sure, but has ended up as a cudgel used to bludgeon any viewpoint that doesn’t fully mesh with the speaker’s doomerism.
To explain the connection: the world of climate action leans left. It doesn’t have to, but as a whole the right has completely abandoned meaningfully acting on climate change. So, this left-leaning bias means that a lot of climate conversation is had through a lens critical of corporations.
As a principle, this is reasonable because corporations have been some of the largest carbon emitters and destroyers of the environment. Even capital-loving Econ 101 portrayals of environmental externalities are situations where corporations pollute the environment and have to be curtailed by government intervention.
Fossil fuel companies also have a long history of peddling disinformation and sowing doubt so as to limit public support and government action on climate change. They actively worked to muddy what were relatively clear scientific waters and have contributed to many of the issues we see today in the relationship between institutional science and the public.
I’m all for corporate critique.1 What I’m not for is instilling hopelessness or political inaction in the people. Proclaiming that the world’s emissions are the fault of corporations and cannot be influenced by us individual commoners isn’t helping the problem. Dooming people into “nothing matters other than these corp’s changing and they won’t” is bad.
People should be making personal changes, but personal changes in energy consumption and individual “carbon footprints” aren’t going to solve the problem.2 But personal action in the realm of politics can!
We need political will to enact strong pieces of climate legislation and governance. Political leaders need to see this as a significant issue to their constituents,3 and constituents can make that happen through behavior the Yale study found correlates with felt responsibility: joining campaigns, voting for pro-climate candidates, and speaking to local politicians.
So, the upshot is that people need to identify with and affirm the statement: “I feel a personal sense of responsibility to help reduce global warming.” And there are a myriad of ways to promote this message.
Highlighting weather effects, that people already feel, with climate change can show them they’re probably already on board with reducing global warming and just don’t know it yet (or have the terminology to express it in such a way). Talking about additional effects that many people might not see first hand, like coral bleaching and permafrost thawing, can also up the sense of immediacy for action. And of course, other time-honored traditions of political messaging (“think of
the your children”) stand to benefit the climate space, too.
In all these cases, we need to bring climate change much more front and center. To quote Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes in another piece from Yale: “communicators need to make climate change feel like something that is near, personal, and urgent.” And what better way to do that then by making the communicators themselves more near, personal, and urgent. A previous letter of mine highlighted how the best predictor of whether or not someone votes for climate as a high priority is if they have discussions about climate with family and friends.
In light of that, the below estimation is worrying:
Discussions of climate change and climate solutions need to be about 100x more prevalent than they currently are. And that is something we can all change immediately, and easily.
Though, not to let our news media of the hook too quickly, as they do comprise most of the professional communicators referred to by Stoknes, they need to be talking about climate, global warming, and climate solutions much, much, much more. I’m currently beginning my next job search, and maybe I’ll join their ranks and try to pump up those numbers.
And while not the subject of this piece, more corporate critique should be had.
But they should still be done! They show personal commitment, demonstrate the possibility of lowering emissions, and they are a right action. More discussion on the philosophical rightness of this kind of action to come in later letters.
Which currently is not the case, at least not as much as it should be. Americans should care more about climate change than they do right now. They aren’t going to be voting for pro-climate politicians and policy goals appropriate to the problem, if they do not view the problem appropriate to its dangers.