People who have a stronger sense of place at the global level than the national level are more likely to accept that climate change is caused by human activities, a new study reveals. This is the first time that such a finding has been reported, and the authors say it could have significant implications both for climate change communications and for our understanding of place and identities.
The study, “My Country or My Planet? Exploring the Influence of Multiple Place Attachments and Ideological Beliefs Upon Climate Change Attitudes and Opinions,” found that individuals with stronger global than national attachments were more likely to perceive climate change as an opportunity rather than a threat — for example, perceiving positive economic impacts to arise from climate change responses, and the potential to build a stronger sense of community worldwide. These individuals were more likely to be female, younger, and self-identify as having no religion, to be more likely to vote Green, and to be characterized by significantly lower levels of right wing authoritarian and social dominance beliefs.
The research was conducted in Australia, in collaboration with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), using a survey method with a nationally representative sample.
“The results of this study suggest that local place attachments are not strongly linked to climate change beliefs. Rather, it is the interplay between national and global levels that is significant,” says lead author Dr. Patrick Devine-Wright, a geography professor at the University of Exeter. “Those with stronger global than national sense of place are more likely to accept that climate change is caused by human actions and could be an opportunity for society — to bring people together — not just a threat to the economy.”
People generally view a sense of place in purely local terms — the area near to where they live. The study broadens this perception in important ways to encompass national and global forms of belonging — known as place attachments and identities.
Climate change attitudes
The findings add to a growing line of research exploring public opinion and knowledge surrounding climate change and environmental policy. According to a survey conducted in October 2013, approximately two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans believe there is solid evidence that the earth has been getting warmer over the last few decades, a figure that has changed little in the past few years. However, despite overwhelming scientific consensus that climate-warming trends are driven primarily by human activity, less than half (44 percent) of Americans say there is solid evidence of global warming and it is mostly due to human activity.
There are also sharp partisan divides in public opinion, According to a Pew survey conducted in September 2014, about nine-in-ten “Solid Liberals” (91 percent) said the Earth is getting warmer, but just two-in-ten “Steadfast Conservatives” (21 percent) agreed. Another Pew survey from 2013 found that just 23 percent of Republicans and 9 percent of Tea-Party members agree that the evidence on human-driven climate change is solid, compared to 64 percent of Democrats. Meanwhile, 25 percent of Republicans and a whopping 41 percent of Tea-Party members say climate change is “just not happening,” compared to only 4 percent of Democrats. These findings are in line with the results of the new study, which found that people who accept that climate change is influenced by human activities have significantly lower levels of right wing authoritarian and social dominance beliefs.
This line of research is important for several key reasons. Public attitudes will guide how, when and whether governments respond to challenges such as climate change and energy security. Public opinion influences national priorities and the acceptability — as well as the acceptance — of new policies and technologies. In the coming decade, public awareness and concerns about energy and climate change could shift dramatically if energy prices continue to rise, if concerns about political stability in the Middle East and in other major energy-producing regions of the world continue and if national policy initiatives and international agreements push countries to take aggressive actions to stem carbon emissions and reduce water and air pollution.
The new findings suggest that personalizing the effects of climate change through education, messaging, and informed dialogue could shift public opinion on the issue. Currently, research shows that most Americans do not feel a personal connection to climate change — they are aware of it, they may even rank it as a concern, but according to a Sept. 2014 study, they do not perceive it as a near-term priority on par with, say, the economic recovery or health care reform. In fact, despite scientists’ calls for urgent action, climate change has slipped far down on the list of American priorities.
Making it personal
Some experts say climate change may become a more salient issue for Americans once the health effects are realized. And there’s evidence to back that up: a 2010 study found that people respond positively to information about the health implications of global climate warming, even if they are generally disengaged when it comes to climate change action. Even more remarkably, 40 percent of participants who described themselves as “doubtful” about climate change responded positively to the health-related information, describing it as informative or thought-provoking and saying it offered valuable prescriptive information on how to take action relative to climate change.
The theory here is that framing climate change in terms of its effects on human health personalizes the issue by putting it in familiar terms and relating it to things that we understand. This is important because most Americans view climate change in geographically and temporally distant terms, making it difficult to conceptualize. For instance, although climate change-related phenomena such as rising sea levels and shrinking polar ice coverage have devastating implications, most people don’t view them as pressing problems because their effects are geographically distant and not yet apparent to most Americans. But the health effects of climate change are already occurring here and now. For example, research shows that:
- The rate of people diagnosed with asthma has gone up from 7.3 percent of the U.S. population to 8.4 percent over the last decade, largely due to longer allergy seasons and dampness due to extreme rainfall.
- Between 1995 and 2011, hotter temperatures caused the ragweed pollen season to increase by anywhere from 11 to 27 days in parts of the U.S.
- Climate change has contributed to the expanded range of certain disease vectors (or hosts), including ticks which are vectors for Lyme disease and several other serious infectious diseases in the U.S.
- Globally, the number of reported weather-related natural disasters has more than tripled since the 1960s, resulting in an estimated 60,000 deaths annually, about 2,000 of which take place in the U.S.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; research also clearly links climate change with increased incidences of heart disease, cancer, stroke, respiratory diseases, foodborne illnesses, and more. Unlike abstract climate phenomena, these are problems we can all understand and visualize. By making the problem more concrete, and moving the location of impacts closer to home, it is hoped that climate change will move up on the list of American priorities.
“Re-defining climate change in public health terms should help people make connection to already familiar problems such as asthma, allergies and infectious diseases, while shifting the visualization of the issue away from remote Arctic regions and distant peoples and animals,” said Dr. Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication (4C). “The public health perspective offers a vision of a better, healthier future — not just a vision of an environmental disaster averted.”
Indeed, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, reducing carbon emissions to the levels proposed by the agency in 2014 will result in huge health benefits over the next 10 years, including:
- Up to 130,000 asthma attacks and up to 2,800 heart attacks will be prevented
- 3,700 cases of bronchitis in children will be avoided
- 310,000 lost work days and 180,000 school absences will be prevented