Why Can’t Americans Engage with the Issue of Climate Change?

While there is an overwhelming consensus by scientists that climate change is an increasingly prevalent and threatening issue, the American public lacks motivation to care about its causes and effects. This disinterest can be partially accredited to the media, which often fails to provide a personal connection between the public and the issue at hand.


A study by Yale University and George Mason University reported that 11 percent of Americans are doubtful of climate change, while 10 percent are dismissive of it as a prevailing issue. These attitudes have remained relatively stagnant since 2013. Furthermore, only one in five Americans hear others talk about global warming at least once a month, and 19 percent of survey respondents have only heard others discuss the topic once a year or fewer, according to the study.


To examine the reason for this absence of a connection, a 2012 study from Drexel University, McGill University and Ohio State University reported that the public is more responsive to the issue of climate change when the problem was addressed as a public health threat. In other words, when climate change effects were framed to be localized, tangible and personal, individuals were more apt to consider its causes.


Emily Li, a senior at Emory University, sought to further develop this concept through her senior thesis, which aims to create personal connections that allow Americans to be more engaged with climate change. A focus on accessibility between scientists and the general public inspired Li’s decision to create a website with multimedia outlets, such as audio clips, videos and photograph sliders for the project, Li added.


“[A digital platform] just made a lot of intuitive sense for me because it’s such an accessible form of communication,” Li said. “I wanted [my thesis] to be something that people could really relate to.”


Li said that she has been interested in science writing since she took a course at Emory about green beat environmental journalism during her sophomore year of college. Last November, she attended the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) hosted by the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCC) in Marrakesh, Morocco. Following the conference, she generated an interest in how climate change can affect individuals even though it is a global problem at large. 


Dozens of countries convened in Marrakech, Morocco for the 22nd Conference of the Parties last November to discuss the causes and effects of climate change. Li attended the event as a delegate from Emory University. / “The United Nations flags at COP22 in late afternoon light” / Takver / Creative Commons Flickr Images 


Li localized her project to relate to individuals within a smaller-scale community by studying the effects of climate change in Atlanta rather than on a global scale. She also narrowed her research to focus on air pollution because air quality is such an omnipresent issue in everyday life.


“Air is such an interesting element because it’s something that everyone has to interact with,” Li said. “You can go without food and water for a few days, but you need 550 liters of air a day and can only go without it for five minutes.”


The project incorporates interviews from individuals in Atlanta. These interviews seek to convey the stories of those with personal relationships to air quality, including a firefighter who dealt with issues of wildfires and smoke as well as a child whose asthma was exacerbated by living near a highway.


“People like stories, and they remember stories,” Li said. “It’s not enough to tell people ‘Climate change is happening, and it’s going to affect you.’ To get people to interact with the issue, you have to have stories that provide a face they can relate to.”


Li noted that she wanted to stay aware of her audience’s values and communicate with a friendly tone. She hopes that others may develop similar websites for other cities to link engaged individuals across the world.


Learn more about how media coverage of climate change can affect the public’s perception of the issue here

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