The Last Experiment

Feature / by David Zax /

It’s up to social science to make us act in an environmentally conscious way. But can we trick ourselves into saving ourselves?

Anthony Leiserowitz, from Yale, has his own saying about single-action bias: “We often look for silver bullets instead of silver buckshot.” But it’s not just because no one’s certain what will work. It’s also because, Leiserowitz says, we’re dealing with multiple audiences. His argument is not particularly au courant. President Obama has said, to much applause, that “we are not a collection of Red States and Blue States — we are the United States of America.” It’s a nice notion, Leiserowitz suggests, but it wouldn’t get very far in a peer-reviewed journal of social psychology. He turns Obama’s unifying vision on its head, and then fragments it further. “‘American public’ is a misnomer. There’s no American public,” he says. “There are American publics.”

Such a realization dawned slowly for him. After graduating from college in the early ’90s, he went to work at the Aspen Global Change Institute, helping organize conferences where top scientists met for two-week retreats to discuss pressing environmental problems. “They were wondeful people,” says Leiserowitz. “It completely changed my life.” Still, he came to feel that the talks weren’t getting at the root of the problem. “We were talking about climate change and extinction and so on, but what unites all those things is ultimately human beings and our decision making.”

Now, at Yale, Leiserowitz has taken to scrutinizing those “American publics.” He hopes to get a richer and broader composite picture, and to open up new lines of communication between these publics, researchers, and government. Working with researchers at CRED and George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, Leiserowitz is designing a longitudinal survey system — he currently has 2,200 survey respondents — that will create a steady stream of data over a period of years.

If successful, Leiserowitz’s project should give a coordinated stride to communicating environmental information, which is often an awkward, limping process. The new model is more “a twoway street” of information flow, he explains: “It’s about building in a feedback system. It’s the difference between a teacher and a national campaign. A teacher can see immediately if a student gets it or not, and can even ask, ‘Did you understand?’”

Leiserowitz is also doing what advertisers and TV executives have been doing for decades: identifying niche markets. In his papers, he calls them “interpretive communities.” Each has its own tendencies and biases, its own preoccupations or blocks; different policies will suit each. “Naysayers” must be engaged differently from “alarmists,” and so forth. There’s also a sizable group that could be termed “the confused.” A 2002 Leiserowitz survey found that 88 percent of people thought that the ozone hole contributes directly to global warming, and 45 percent thought ozone depletion to be the primary contributor, far more than identified fossil fuels. It also resulted in this quote from a survey respondent: “The solution is simple. A huge amount of ozone should be created, then a team should fly it to Antarctica” to replace the missing ozone. Whether this particular respondent was having a bit of fun or not doesn’t matter, because this response wasn’t the only one of its kind. “Many people think the best thing you can do is to stop buying aerosol spray cans,” Leiserowitz says. “CFCs have been out of the cans since 1978. It’s okay to buy aerosol spray cans again.”

However dispiriting such findings might be, the wider environmental community is eager for the information. “This stuff is invaluable,” says Tom Bowman, the head of an eponymous design group with a green emphasis that has worked with groups ranging from Northrup Grumman to the US National Academy of Sciences. Bowman says that while environmental researchers have been using surveys for years, Leiserowitz and his colleagues are among the first to introduce the socialmarketing perspective that helps make messages resonate with different groups.

Bowman, who also writes professionally about the environment, thinks that environmental organizations traditionally have done a great job of communicating the problems, but not the solutions. One finding of some of the newer social science is that “to the extent people can’t solve a problem, they tend to ignore that problem,” Bowman says. It’s a finding that could change the whole tone of much environmental education and activism. “People like me are looking for all the insight we can gather into what has been missing in climate-change communication.”

The environmental NGO community is beginning to pay attention to such work as well. Thomas Dietz, director of Michigan State University’s Environmental Science and Policy Program, says that in December he briefed the Environmental Defense Fund staff on new directions they might take by incorporating social science into their work on climate change. The Environmental Defense Fund, already known for incorporating economic concerns in environmental decision making — doing trailblazing work, for example, by incorporating a market-based program for acid-rain prevention into 1990’s Clean Air Act — could galvanize environmental campaigners to pay attention to the rest of social science, too.

Tags climate governance policy social science

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