Why Are Only 19% Of Americans Talking About Climate Change?

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Originally published on The Climate Reality Project.

There are times when the English language fails us. Witnessing the stunning force and relentless rain of Hurricane Harvey, you’re left with the feeling we just don’t have the words for what’s been happening in Texas. Not ones big enough to capture it all, anyway.

It doesn’t help when even the National Weather Service throws its collective hands up in the air in 139 characters of disbelief:

“This event is unprecedented & all impacts are unknown & beyond anything experienced. Follow orders from officials to ensure safety. #Harvey

This looks to be Houston’s third 500-year rainfall or flood in three yearsThe most rainfall from a tropical storm to hit the lower 48, with nearly 52 inches in at least one location. Unprecedented alright.

Then there’s the human tragedy playing out with at least 30 dead as of the time of writing, some 30,000 in shelters, cities like Port Arthur underwater, and hundreds of thousands forced to evacuate. And there’s the sneaking feeling we still don’t know the full extent of the devastation – and won’t until the floodwaters recede. As Texas Governor Greg Abbott said, “We need to recognize it will be a new normal, a new and different normal for the entire region.”

Right now, of course, the national focus is on getting people to safety and taking care of those forced from their homes (and if you’re able, we’d ask you to do what you can to help). But once the immediate danger passes, we need to start talking about why this storm was so devastating and what we can do to limit our risk of another Harvey in the future. Because one part of that why is something we do have words for: the climate crisis.

Definitively answering the question of one-to-one causation between the crisis and a storm like Harvey is complicated. But in some ways, it’s also the wrong question to ask. Michael Mann has a great primer on the connections here, but the short version is that a world where temperatures keep rising and oceans have more and more heat energy is a world where storms like Harvey become more likely and hit harder than they would otherwise. Or as he puts it:

“[W]hile we cannot say climate change “caused” Hurricane Harvey (that is an ill-posed question), we can say is that it exacerbated several characteristics of the storm in a way that greatly increased the risk of damage and loss of life. Climate change worsened the impact of Hurricane Harvey.”

So what can we do? The answer – or at least one part of it – is actually pretty simple: talk about it. Which brings us to that number up above: 19 percent.

According to a 2016 survey by Yale and George Mason University researchers, only 19 percent of Americans hear someone they know talking about global warming at least once a month.

From the perspective of most policymakers, this 19 percent might as well be 0 percent. Because for those who aren’t already with us, that number isn’t nearly enough to tell them that they better make climate a priority if they like the view from their office. To put it another way, it’s not nearly enough to scare them straight.

Even before Harvey, the horrifying show of racism in Charlottesville, developments in the Russia investigation, the healthcare debate, and so much more all seemed to hit the headlines with breathtaking speed, with so much coming so quickly that it could feel next to impossible to keep track of what’s happening today. Never mind in the big picture scheme of things.

We’re not saying none of these things matter. Because clearly they do. But what also matters is this planet we share and the lives of all those people in Houston, Port Arthur, and flooded communities across Texas and Louisiana. And if we let the breaking news take all the oxygen in the room, there’s nothing left for an issue like climate that isn’t as flashy but matters every bit as much.

So we have to start talking about it and force climate into the political conversation. So far, we can count the number of White House officials talking about the climate connections to Harvey on one finger of our third hand. The bottom line is that unless we talk about it, policymakers won’t – and won’t change.

This isn’t to blame or guilt anyone. Most of us are in the same boat – we care deeply about the crisis but if we’re honest, we’re probably not bringing it up all the time with our friends, our partners, our colleagues. Maybe it’s because we’re afraid we’ll seem like the bummer crew. Maybe we just don’t know what to say.

A lesson we can take from the healthcare debate is that one reason that the bills ultimately failed is because Americans were talking about the issue everywhere.The country was buzzing with talk about healthcare and lawmakers knew they had to pick a side. Witness the incredible work organizations and local networks like Indivisible, MoveOn, and the Town Hall Project have done to get countless people who never thought of themselves as activists making calls to legislators, showing up to events, and ensuring their representatives knew exactly how they felt. Sure, many still voted for the bill, but in the end, three senators actually listened to their constituents and on the day, those three were enough.

So back to the climate crisis. There’s another important number to pull out here: 68 percent. That’s the fraction of Americans who believe global warming is caused by human activities, according to a March 2017 poll by Gallup.

Think about what that number means in political terms. We’re not talking about 50 percent plus one. We’re talking about an overwhelming majority of Americans who understand what’s happening and could transform the political landscape if they spoke up.

We know some of what’s coming in the political response to Harvey. There will be flag waving. There will rightfully be tributes to the incredible men and women risking their lives to rescue their neighbors and working around the clock to keep shelters going and offer some scrap of comfort in the misery Harvey left in its wake. In a country where we’re seemingly determined to tear each other apart on social media and destroy anyone who disagrees with us, it’s nothing short of incredible to see Americans of all stripes put that pettiness aside and come together when the chips are down.

But what you won’t hear from the administration is the question any four-year-old would ask: What can we do to try to prevent another disaster like Harvey? You certainly won’t hear the words “climate change.”

It’s up to us to change that. If we believe the devastation of our planet is important, we’ve got to talk to each other about it. So much that legislators take notice. Sure, it can be hard to know exactly what to talk about or even where to start (in which case check out our e-books that break down key points in areas from the basics of climate science to the questions every activist hears). But it’s a lot like riding a bike and once you start, it gets easier every time.

So start. The future of our environment, this country, this planet, they’re up to you in a pretty big way. The consequences of silence couldn’t be clearer right now. And the most important way most of us can do something about it is maybe the easiest way of all. So let’s get talking.

Reprinted with permission.

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