Episode 11: Climate Change Communications with Ed Maibach (GMU's Center for Climate Change Communication)


You, dear listener, may be one of the few Americans who knows that 97% of climate scientists believe climate change is human-caused but how do you approach a conversation about climate change with those who do not believe it is happening? And how many climate change skeptics are out there? We talk in this episode with the man who has the answers to these questions and more. Ed Maibach, Director of George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication, has been researching for the past several years the various ways Americans think about climate change and how to motivate people to act on this issue. He's even developed his own way to categorize the different ways Americans think about climate change including our personal favorites, "Dismissive Dan" and "Alarmed Alice." Don't be a Dismissive Dan.

Learn more about environmental awareness here!

Updates to Original Research

  • Overall, since this episode’s original publication, we can say that Americans’ general awareness of climate change is moving in the right direction. The Center for Climate Change Communication recently released an updated report in March of 2018 called Climate Change in the American Mind, which reported an upward trend in Americans’ concern about global warming, as reflected in several key indicators tracked since 2008 including substantial increases in Americans’ certainty that global warming is happening. Furthermore, the proportion of Americans who are very worried about global warming has more than doubled to 21% since its low point in 2011.

  • So let’s talk some more numbers from the report. 39 percent said they were being harmed "right now" because of global warming, and 42 percent thought they would be harmed in the future. So even in the future, most people’s opinion doesn’t change on whether climate change will affect them. While they don’t see it affecting them, they do see it affecting others. 71 percent thought that future generations and plants and animal species would be harmed, and 63 percent expected harm to come to the world's poor.

  • The most recent survey also shows not a lot of hope for action. A majority of Americans think that humans could reduce global warming, but only 6 percent think that we will.

  • Good news. Our next episode will be full to the brim with hope as we’ll welcome Paul Hawken, the author of Drawdown, the most comprehensive plan ever to reduce global warming. So get excited for that one!

  • Now, for some specific stat updates that you’ll hear cited in the upcoming intro:

    • First, we say that only about one in ten Americans (11%) understand that nearly all climate scientists (more than 90%) are convinced that human-caused global warming is happening. Now, about one in seven Americans (15%) understand that nearly all climate scientists (more than 90%) have concluded that human-caused global warming is happening.

    • We also say in the intro that seven in ten Americans (70%) think global warming is happening, and that only about one in ten Americans (11%) think global warming is not happening. Get this. While the updated report documents that it’s still Seven in ten Americans (70%) think global warming is happening, the number who think global warming is not happening has actually increased a little bit from 11% to 14%. But still, the fact that this increased at all is a little mind boggling.

    • Interestingly, the report also gives some reasons as to why Americans don’t discuss global warming with their friends and family. About one in three say that they don’t talk about it because it never comes up in conversation

    • (35%) and/or because they already all agree about global warming (33%). Other reasons include they don't know enough to talk about it, their family and friends are not interested in it, it is too political, and/or it has never occurred to them to talk about it.

    • The bit that global warming is too political to talk about is really something we all need to work on. It’s not political, it’s science! For more on that dichotomy, check out our previous episode called Conservatives and Climate Change (number 20) with Bob Inglis of RepublicEn.

What We’ll Cover

  • Brief overview of climate change statistics.

  • What do Americans think about climate change? How has that changed over time?

  • What is Climate Change Communication?

  • What are the Six Americas that the 4C (GMU Center for Climate Change Communications) discusses?

  • A little about Edward Maibach

Brief overview of climate change statistics.

  • US average temperature has increased by 1.3 degrees F to 1.9 degrees F since record-keeping began in 1895; most of which since about 1970. The most recent decade was the nation’s warmest on record. (1) Also, my agency, NOAA, has come out with some pretty amazing stats. June 2016 marked the 14th consecutive month of record heat globally. Also, The globally averaged sea surface temperature was record high for June and the year-to-date (January–June). The globally averaged sea surface temperature was record high for June and the year-to-date (January–June) (10).

  • While surface air temperature is the most widely cited measure of human-induced climate change, the impacts range from (below and more): (1)

    • An increase in extreme weather, like excessively high temperatures, heavy downpours, and in some regions, severe floods and droughts.

    • Increased risk of respiratory stress from poor air quality, heat stress, and the spread of food-borne, insect-borne, and waterborne diseases, including increasing the risk of emergency or reemergence of health threats that are currently uncommon in the US, such as dengue fever.

    • Damage to infrastructure from sea level rise, storm surge, and heavy downpours, especially in rapidly developing coastal areas.

    • Decrease in surface and groundwater supplies from increasing demand, declining runoff and declining groundwater recharge. Water quality is also diminishing due to increasing sedimentation and contaminant concentrations after heavy downpours.

What do Americans think about climate change? How has that changed over time?

  • As of March 2016, seven in ten Americans (70%) think global warming is happening. Only about one in ten Americans (11%) think global warming is not happening. (2). In November 2008, when survey started, 71% thought it was happening and 10% said not happening.

  • About half of Americans (53%) think that global warming, if it is happening, is mostly human caused. One in three (34%) believe it is due mostly to natural changes in the environment. (2)

  • Only about one in ten Americans (11%) understand that nearly all climate scientists (more than 90%) are convinced that human-caused global warming is happening. (2)

    • Maybe talk about the John Oliver sketch where rather than the side by side of person in favor of climate change and person against climate change like being fair and balanced, he had 97 people on one side (including Bill Nye) and three on the other.

  • Over half of Americans (58%) say they are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming, but only 16% say they are “very worried.” (2)

  • Only about four in ten Americans (38%) think people in the U.S. are being harmed “right now” by global warming. However, this number has risen by 6%  since March 2015 and is higher now than at any other time the question has been asked (starting in 2008). 

    • Also since spring 2015, the number of Americans who think global warming will cause harm has increased substantially. More think it will cause a “great deal” or “moderate amount” of harm to people in developing countries (63%, +10%), people in the U.S. (59%, +10%), future generations (70%, +7%), and to them personally (41%, +5%). (2)

  • One in seven Americans think it is definitely (7%) or probably (9%) true that “God controls the climate, therefore people can’t be causing global warming. (11). Only 33% said that this was definitely not true.

  • There is a VERY cool map here of the estimated adults who think global warming is happening as of 2014. 

    • Fun fact: of all of the ~almost~ states, DC has the highest rate of adults who think global warming is happening at 81%. They are shortly followed by Hawaii (75%), New York (72%), and California (70%). (3)

    • It allows you to change the output (so could look at “worried about global warming” “fund research into renewable sources” “global warming is caused mostly by human activities” etc.). Can also go nationally, by state, by congressional district, and by county.

What is Climate Change Communication, and what does a Center about Climate Change Communication do?

  • Climate change communication is about educating, informing, warning, persuading, mobilizing, and solving this critical problem. As an academic field, climate change communication scientists and scholars seek to understand these processes, develop and test scientific theories, and identify more effective communication strategies and tactics. (5)

  • The Center for Climate Change Communication (“4C”) conducts research about public understanding of and engagement with climate change, including what types of audiences exist and how their beliefs and attitudes can be shaped into large-scale behavioral changes. (6)

  • They also develop and test new approaches for enhancing public understanding of and engagement in climate change and partner with government agencies, associations, and businesses in developing and testing their public engagement initiatives. (6)

What are the Six Americas that the 4C discusses?

  • The 4C believes in 6 groups of engagement in global warming issues: Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, and Dismissive. Percentages below are as of March 2016. (8)

  • ALARMED individuals are convinced that climate change is happening and is human-caused. They believe the threat is urgent, and is harming or will very soon harm them and others around the world. They support a variety of bold national policies and are already changing their own lifestyles to be part of the solution. They show their advocacy through consumption choices by favoring environmentally responsible businesses and reducing their home energy use. Consuming a lot of public media, they stand as opinion leaders and citizen advocates. (4)

  • The CONCERNED are also very sure climate change is happening, is human-caused, and use their purchasing power to favor environmentally responsible businesses. The level of urgency they feel is much lower; they do not think about the issue as often as the Alarmed nor do they feel as personally threatened. They believe climate change will be harmful in the future. While they support a strong national response, they are less personally involved in the issue and do not take on much, if any, citizen advocacy. Their attention to media and public affairs is average. (4)

  • Although CAUTIOUS individuals believe climate change is a problem, they have less urgency and certainty it is happening and human-caused than the Alarmed and Concerned. They do not pay much attention to environmental news, consider climate change a low priority, and do not feel personally affected by it. Although they have uncertainty about its actual occurrence, they are interested in positive and negative climate change impacts, and have some concern about potential harm to people. Beyond energy conservation, they are not necessarily involved in other ways to address climate change. However, they moderately support a range of possible policies. (4)

  • The DISENGAGED generally does not know much about climate change or whether it is happening, and does not give the issue much thought. This segment typically has received less formal education and is less financially well off than other segments of the population. While the Disengaged are typically politically inactive, they are open-minded regarding the issue, and tend to have strong religious values. Importantly, they are interested in learning what they and the wider community can do to reduce climate change’s impacts. (4)

  • The audience that falls into the DOUBTFUL category is close to being evenly split among those who think climate change is happening, those who think it is not, and those who are unsure. They are not all that concerned or worried about changes in climate, holding the belief that if it does exist, it is due to natural environmental changes, and is a distant threat several decades in the future. They are comfortable with the amount of action America is currently taking to address climate change and do not believe much more, if any, additional action is necessary. However, they do view energy efficiency measures as sensible and typically support policies that promote U.S. energy security. (4)

  • On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Alarmed, are the DISMISSIVE. The individuals in this group are highly engaged in the issue but strongly believe climate change is not happening and is likely a hoax. They also feel they are well informed on the issue, following information sources that share their views. Other beliefs include: there is no threat to people or nature, the nation does not need to act, and many scientists agree with their viewpoint. While opposing government action, they are active in making energy-efficient home improvements for financial savings benefits. (4)

  • Over time, the numbers for each of the six Americas look like below (8). Amazingly, these numbers have stayed relatively constant. Cautious, concerned, and alarmed make up 72% of the people. 

  • 92% of Clinton voters think global warming is happening and 56% of Trump supporters think global warming is happening. Supporters of all democratic and republican candidates (except Cruz at the time) were more likely to vote for a candidate who strongly supports taking action on global warming and less likely to vote for a candidate who strongly opposes taking action to reduce global warming.

A little about Edward Maibach: (9)

  • Dr. Edward Maibach is a University Professor and the Director of George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication (4C). His research currently focuses on how to mobilize populations to adopt behaviors and support public policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including public understanding of climate change and clean energy; the psychology underlying public engagement; and cultivating TV weathercasters, health professionals, and climate scientists as effective climate educators. 

  • From 2011 to 2014, he co-chaired the Engagement & Communication Working Group for the 3rd National Climate Assessment, and he currently advises government agencies, museums, science societies and civic organizations on their climate change public engagement initiatives.