Founder and Director of the Yale University Program on Climate Change Communication
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:00:03] One of the most important things that we all can do, we all have this superpower is to talk about it. It’s one of the first most important things that we do as human beings is that we talk about what’s important to us. Because if nobody’s talking about it, we all take the lesson. Well, then this can’t be very important.
Bill Loveless [00:00:20] As we move on from the hottest summer on record. Climate change and its effects remain in the National Zeit geist. The topic has been featured in both Democratic and Republican presidential discussions, and the Biden administration continues to advocate for the Inflation Reduction Act, which aims to fight climate change by cleaning up various pollution heavy industries. A series of surveys from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Study, public opinion of Climate change from a variety of perspectives. So how worried, frustrated, or hopeful are people feeling about global warming? What specifically do registered voters in America think about the issue, and how do those sentiments compare to other countries around the world? This is Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. I’m Bill Loveless. Today on the show, Anthony Leiserowitz. Anthony is the founder and director of the Yale University Program on Climate Change Communication and a senior research scientist at the Yale School of the Environment. He has worked with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academy of Sciences, the World Economic Forum, and many other major organizations to understand the psychological, cultural and political factors that shape climate change beliefs. In 2020, he was named one of the most influential climate scientists in the world by Reuters. Anthony also hosts Climate Connections, a daily 92nd podcast about global warming. I talked with Anthony about the climate change in the American Mind series and beliefs held around the world. We also discuss the current discourse in American politics and how attitudes differ among registered voters. I hope you enjoy our conversation. Anthony Leiserowitz welcomed the Columbia Energy Exchange.
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:02:30] Thanks, Bill. Great to be with you.
Bill Loveless [00:02:32] Anthony, you’re a human geographer by training, and that was the subject of your Ph.D. from the University of Oregon. For those who may not be familiar with the term, what is a human geographer and what attracted you to this field?
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:02:49] Well, really, I was a combination. So my true discipline is or was in environmental science studies and policy and geography itself is a very interdisciplinary discipline that goes, of course, back hundreds of years and really looked at two main things physical geography. So the spatial patterns and interaction of, you know, species and climate and oceans and and so on and the physical world and then likewise, human geography looks at those same kinds of spatial patterns and interactions over time. In the human world, you know, like how to have human beings moved across the planet, how religions spread across the planet, how that how our different political geography is shaping our world today, like the rise of nationalism as just one example. So anyway, it was the perfect place because the discipline itself always had this really incredibly important and rich conversation around the intersection of the natural world and the human world. And so it was the perfect place to kind of ground my dissertation. And then I did a lot of interdisciplinary work, predominantly in cognitive psychology, to make my particular focus, which was on how the public in the United States is thinking and responding to climate change. So again, how do human beings respond to changes in the natural world?
Bill Loveless [00:04:05] Yeah, and I read where you grew up in a farm in Michigan and followed your undergraduate studies at Michigan State University, moved to Colorado to work as a ski bum. And that’s where you became interested in climate change. Is that is that true?
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:04:20] Yeah, a little more to that is I was actually as an undergrad, I was an international relations major and I thought I had this was back during the Cold War and I thought I had a long career ahead of me basically trying to keep the world from blowing itself up. So I studied a lot of, you know, Soviet nuclear policies and China policies and the US and and so on. But six months before I graduated, the Berlin Wall came down and my international international relations degree turned into a history degree like that. So I know, I know what that feels like. And, and so, yeah, I followed a friend out to Colorado. I thought I was just going to make a little money, travel around the world. And instead I got incredibly lucky to become one of the first staff members at the Aspen Global Change Institute, where I spent four years working with many of the world’s leading climate scientists, ozone scientists at the time, biodiversity specialists and so on. And it changed my life. It’s why I do what I do today, because I suddenly got introduced and this is back in 1990, just what we as human beings were doing to the world’s climate. And even then we were very clear what was what was ahead of us as human beings on this planet. And unfortunately, it’s now 33 years later. And so many of those predictions, unfortunately, are coming true all around us. So anyway, it led me ultimately to come back to graduate school, because ultimately the question I kept wrestling with was, okay, you know, and the natural science is fascinating. And it’s I mean, it’s so I mean, it’s really just a fascinating study to think about how this complex system of the climate works. But in the end, why do we have climate change? Why do we have ozone depletion? Why are we facing the sixth grade extinction event? And I kept coming back as an answer to that is it’s human beings. The reason we have all these problems is because of human perceptions, human choices, human decisions, human behavior. So I ultimately decided that, look, if I really want to address these issues, the the course that I should be studying is not the natural sciences, but the social sciences and yes, the humanities, because that’s where the roots of this problem really lie and where the solutions are going to emerge. So anyway, long story short, that took me on to graduate school and ultimately to my position here at Yale, where I direct the Yale program on climate change communication.
Bill Loveless [00:06:37] Well, here we are. And you’ve got off to a fabulous start in your career, and it’s turned out to be so timely and and urgent in terms of the sorts of studies that you’re involved there at Yale. Just this summer, we saw extreme weather around the world, including record high temperatures, as well as devastating fires, floods and other storms. Arguably, Tony, it should make a fresh impression on people. But but is that happening?
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:07:05] So this is something we’ve been studying for a long, long time. So let me just give the listeners a little more context. So at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, we study how do people around the world respond to this issue? So what do they understand and misunderstand about the causes, the consequences and solutions? How do they perceive the risks? So the likelihood and severity of different impacts from wildfire. Fire. State. Human health. Sea level rise. And so on. What kinds of policies do they support or oppose? And then what kinds of behaviors are people engaged in or willing to change in order to address climate change and related issues? And then ultimately, as scientists, our ultimate question is why? What are the underlying psychological, cultural, political reasons why some people get really engaged with this issue? Others are kind of apathetic and some are downright dismissive and hostile, or at least they are in just the United States and a couple other countries, and we can get into that later. We also studied this at many different levels. So we’ve been doing, for example, and I’ll draw on this to answer your question, a project with our partners at George Mason University for the past 15 years that we call climate change in the American mind. We do two nationally representative surveys each year. So every spring, every fall, every spring, every fall. And I’ve been doing that now since 2008. But we also do a lot of work at the state and local level so we know what’s going on, where the rubber hits the road, so to speak, across the country on these issues. But also a lot of work internationally. So first ever studies in China, India, Brazil. We just released a report on Indonesia. And then we’ve been partner with both the Gallup world poll and meta data for good to do studies with data from about 192 countries and territories. So I think our conversation is going to end up covering a lot of different ground. So it’s just to say that’s all the kind of work we do. So back to your question, what role has weather and weather experience beginning to play? So that was a question we asked ourselves way back in 2008 when we got started as like when does direct experience and even broader than that vicarious experience, because, you know, it’s not just that you have to experience a flood yourself. You can watch the news, you can talk to friends and family who or you know, other people that you know or that you only know about because you’ve watched it on the television news and hear their stories, hear that, see the trauma that they’ve experienced, seeing how their home has been destroyed by a flood or a fire or etc., etc.. All of those are pathways in today’s world by which we can change our beliefs and our opinions and our feelings and our ultimately our concerns about the issue of climate. So the long story short of this is that for many, many years, we saw no influence of the direct experience of extreme weather in the United States. In fact, the issue and I know we’ll get into this more later was essentially so if I may use the word polluted by the politics, that it was very difficult for any signal from direct experience to emerge out of that noise. But in 2016, we finally, for the first time, saw the influence of direct experience, namely that people who had experienced hot, dry weather, especially in kind of the Great Plains area, began. We began to see just that. They were changing their views, even controlling for politics and ideology. And ever since then, we think that signal from the direct experience or vicarious experience of these extreme events has gotten louder and louder. And as you just said, this past year has been truly brutal. I mean, we’ve seen a whole succession of just horrible years of major disasters, of course. But this past year, at both the national level, the local level, and of course, the global level, where, you know, global temperatures are just off the charts. I mean, just astoundingly, record highs beyond anything that it ever in recorded human history. Yeah.
Bill Loveless [00:10:57] And it just continues, by the way. Right. I mean, we saw a record hot summer, you know, and in June, July and August and September, the fourth consecutive month of the unprecedented heat, putting the 2023 on a track to be the hottest year in recorded history.
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:11:15] That’s right. And so, long story short of that is that we are beginning to see Americans finally connecting the dots between what for most of them is this abstract issue, climate change, that they don’t think about very much. They don’t talk about it very much. And they’re finally connecting the dots between climate change and these impacts that are either happening to themselves or people they know or that they’re seeing play out on their television screens or, you know, phone screens or whatever. So at least in the United States, we’re beginning to see more and more people saying climate change is actually harming people in the United States today, and that increasingly they’re convinced that it’s going to harm them. Now, we still have a long way to go in the United States. That all said, we also see at the global scale that this has come through much more clearly than it has in the U.S. because it’s not been so distracted and polluted by the politics. And so that’s a really, really important point.
Bill Loveless [00:12:17] It is. And I do want to discuss that. But just a data point there, that survey you were referring to of Americans, how they. The response to the impacts of extreme weather. The survey in the spring showed that Americans are worried, as you note, about extreme heat and understand it, as affected by climate change. Some 72% of Americans are at least a little worried about extreme heat harming their communities. And and you found, if I got this right, that extreme heat tops the list of worries about climate impacts.
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:12:48] That’s right. And you got to put all of that against the backdrop of what do Americans actually understand about climate change? And even there, things have been getting better in recent years. So we’re basically at or near an all time high. So as of last April and by the way, we’re just about to go into the field and we’ll have our latest data in the next few weeks. But even in April, 74% of Americans said that climate change is happening and that’s near an all time high. So, you know, congratulations, America. That’s something to celebrate.
Bill Loveless [00:13:19] Would it have been, say, five years ago, Tony?
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:13:21] Oh, five years ago, we were probably around 70%, 69%. And if you go back to 2010, we were only at 57%. So it’s been slowly increasing over the years. But to put that in context, yes, 74% near all time high in the United States. But if we were in Brazil or Japan, this number would be over 95%. Okay. So it’s just to say that even then, even though we’re at some all time highs, we still have a substantial proportion of Americans who either don’t think it’s happening. And by the way, I haven’t even gotten to the human cost question. They just don’t accept that it’s happening at all or they just don’t know. So we still have some work to do in the United States.
Bill Loveless [00:14:01] Yet you refer to that study. You looked at your program at Yale and George Mason have done studies categorizing people in the U.S. and other countries into six groups. On the broader topic of climate change. Alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful and dismissive and the, quote unquote, alarmed. We’re the largest group and about three quarters of the countries and territories you surveyed as some 80 out of 100 of them. The greatest alarm was sounded in five countries Chile, Mexico, Malawi, Bolivia and Sri Lanka. In the U.S., only about one third of the respondents were alarmed.
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:14:39] Yeah, and in fact, when we look specifically at this nationally representative data, it’s a little smaller than that even. It’s about 26% different methodologies, basically. But let me just quickly give people that understanding of what we mean. So one of the first rules of effective communication is know your audience. Who are they? What do they know? What do they think they know? Who do they trust? Where do they get their information? What are their underlying values? And it’s only once you understand who they are that you as a communicator can go more than halfway to meet them where they are and help them take the next step in their learning journey. And I. I said that so simply. But it’s so hard for most of us to do because we want to talk about whatever it is most present on our minds. So it would be great to have an hour long conversation right now about border adjustment taxes and what role they might play in, you know, solving climate change. That is not an appropriate conversation for 99.9999% of humanity. Okay. That is not where they are on this issue. So is this to say that we all suffer from what we call the veil of knowledge, not the veil of ignorance, but the veil of knowledge that once we learn something, we just automatically assume that everyone else around us knows what we know, but they don’t. And so, again, that’s why we developed this tool, this this analysis that we call global warming six Americas. And that we’ve now extended around the world to try to better understand who these different audiences are. And like you said, here in the United States, the first is a group of call the alarmed at 26%. These are people who are fully convinced it’s happening. Human caused, urgent. They strongly support action. And the number one question in their mind is, what can we do? What can I do as an individual? What can we do as communities, as cities, states, the country, and yes, the world. And so we’ve done a really good job helping them understand the gravity of this problem, why it’s so important. And they’re absolutely eager to get involved. But we haven’t done a good job helping them understand what they and we all can do. So it’s just to say the communication need for them is really to is engagement is like how what can we do and where do we go?
Bill Loveless [00:16:49] And just to put in perspective, other countries that you fund with relatively small percentages of land were Germany, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:16:59] And there are very different reasons for those, and we’ll get into those in a bit. So anyway, to continue on with the Six Americas, then we have a group we call the concern to 27%. They also think is happening, human caused is serious, but they still think of the impacts as distant, distant in time that we won’t feel the impacts for a generation or more or just in space. This is about polar bears or developing countries. But not the United States, not my state, not my community. Friends. Family. Or me. And as a result, it becomes psychologically distant. So, yes, they support action, but they don’t yet understand why it’s so urgent that we act now to reduce carbon pollution as quickly as possible. Then a group we call the cautious is still on the fence. Is it real? Is it not? As a human? Is it natural? Is it serious? Is it overblown? They’re paying attention, but they’re just kind of confused by what they’re hearing. Then a small but I think, important group that we call the disengaged who basically at 7% and they basically say, you know, I don’t think I’ve ever even heard that term global warming. I don’t know what that is. I don’t know what the causes, consequences or solutions are. I never hear anyone talking about it. I just I just don’t know. Then a group we call the doubtful at 11%. These are people who say, you know, I don’t think it’s real, but if it is, it’s just natural cycles. Nothing we as humans have anything to do with. Nothing we can do anything about. So they don’t see it as much of a risk. And then last but not least, just the group we call the dismissive. Also at 11% who are firmly convinced it’s not happening, not human caused, not a serious problem. And most of whom quite literally tell us that they’re conspiracy theorists. They say it’s a hoax. Here’s scientists making up data. It’s a U.N. plot to take away American sovereignty is to get rich scheme by Al Gore and his friends and many other such kind of conspiracy narratives. Now, the crucial thing to note about them is that they are only 11%. They’re only 11%. But there are really loud 11%. They’re really vocal, 11%. They’ve tended to dominate public discourse. In fact, they’re very well represented in the House of Congress. So what has happened is that they have so dominated public conversation about this that they have intimidated the other nine out of ten Americans into what we call climate silence. Many people are actually afraid to talk about climate change. And here we are in October. So it’s appropriate to bring this up, is that climate change has joined sex, religion and politics at the Thanksgiving Day table as a topic that you don’t want to bring up because nobody wants to piss off their Uncle Bob. And it is often Uncle Bob. And yet nine out of ten Americans are more than willing to have a constructive conversation about this issue. So one of the most important things that we all can do, we all have this superpower, is to talk about it. It’s one of the first most important things that we do as human beings is that we talk about what’s important to us. Because if nobody’s talking about it, we all take the lesson. Well, then this can’t be very important. So it’s just to say that for all the things that we need to do, talking about it and communicating about it is one of the necessary conditions for action and circumstances.
Bill Loveless [00:19:59] For example, the extreme weather that we just talked about would certainly seem to be one of those things that would prompt this sort of discussion. You simply can’t avoid the topic. When you see the weather, the temperature, the storms, the flooding that occurred in New York City just the other day, not too far from where you are in New Haven. It seems as though you can’t avoid talking about it. I guess it’s a question of how informed you are in discussing this and what steps you might then consider taking.
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:20:25] So we like to call extreme weather events teachable moments. Okay. So one, we just have to recognize the environment, the information environment we all inhabit now, like the average American is exposed to like 2000 external messages a day. K Your attention. One of the scarcest resources on the planet is being competed for with tech talk and Twitter and the news and your kids and you know, advertisers and you know, the latest soap opera that people are watching. I mean, whatever. Okay. The point is that you are being bombarded every day by lots of things that are saying we’re not about climate change. We want you to drag your attention to us. So it’s actually really hard to cut through all of that with a message about this most crucial kind of an issue that we all have to deal with. And so weather extremes are one of those teachable moments because it’s when human beings, when journalists, when policymakers move their attention to something that is happening, like the floods in New York, like everybody in New York, was very aware of what was going on and and so on. That’s a huge opportunity to help people connect the dots again. Because, again, just going back to what I said before, for too many people, this is still a distant problem. And what they haven’t heard is that climate change is making those kinds of events more frequent and more severe. And of course, there’s a huge new body of scientific field basically called attribution studies. We have our colleagues at World Weather Attribution, Climate Central are really helping to pioneer this work where in near real time they’re able to take these extreme events, do an analysis and figure out what role did climate change actually play in these. And that has really helping to transform the way we talk about it. Because now journalists can finally go. And when they’re reporting about that big storm or that big flood or that the wildfire smoke from Canada that blanketed all of the East Coast, they can say, guess what? This has the finger. Sense of climate change on it. And that, again, changes the way that all of us in the lay public think about these issues not as just one off events, not just as natural disasters. They’re now unnatural disasters.
Bill Loveless [00:22:38] Yeah, I think the emergence of attribution science is so important. I mean, it’s been there for some time. The science is not new, but our awareness of it and and its findings and its help and others helping us understand what’s going on I think is becoming much more prevalent than it ever has been before. You know, you mentioned Capitol Hill politicians, all sorts of things a moment ago where in the early stages of the 2024 national election campaigns in the United States and, you know, climate change is one of the big topics for candidates and both parties in one way or another. President Biden, of course, has made promoting green energy and reducing emissions a primary goal of his administration and his reelection campaign and among Republicans. Some acknowledge that climate change is genuine. But as the New York Times reminded us the other day, few acknowledge it. Seriousness and most oppose shifting the U.S. from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Your program and George Mason has surveyed registered voters. He did so again back in the spring. What were you finding at that time?
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:23:42] So one of the most important things to note is just kind of like long term trends. And so in particular, we’ve been looking at questions like should global warming be a very high priority for the president and Congress? So in other words, how important is this, given all the other things on the national agenda? How important should this be? And what we’ve seen over the years is that this issue has soared as a public priority among Democrats. I mean, just it’s more than doubled. And I’ll say more about that in a second. So it’s really surged among Democrats. It’s also gone up quite substantially among independents, not as much as among Democrats, but definitely up. But among Republicans, it’s basically been very low and flatlined for this entire time period. So Republicans really haven’t budged. It’s the rest of the country that’s become increasingly concerned about it. Now we take that one step further. And over the past few election cycles, we’ve asked people how important is climate change versus 29 other issues? You know, crime, health care, race relations, you know, Covid, the economy, all these other issues on the national agenda. How important is climate change in determining your vote? And what we’re finding now, this is 2016, 2020, 2022, is that the issue has again soared among Democrats, but in particular among liberal Democrats, the base of one of our two political parties. And among liberal Democrats, it’s been number two or number three on a list of 29 different issues that is unprecedented in American history, where the base of one of our two political parties now sees climate change as one of the their absolute top priorities. Among moderate conservative Democrats, it’s about in the middle, like around, you know, 14, 11, 12. But among moderate Republicans, it’s second to last. And among conservative Republicans, it’s dead last and it has been dead last for a long time. So, again, this is an indication of how polarized the two parties are, at least in terms of prioritizing the issue. But it also helps us understand why we’ve seen such action on climate change by Democrats, because they were responding in part to the politics now. And remember, this is a reflection of the American political system, which is a two party system. We’re not a parliamentary system where primaries are crucial to get nominated as the presidential candidate or the senator candidate or the member of Congress candidate. You have to win a primary. And the primary vote tends to be dominated by that base of the party. And that’s true of Democrats. It’s also true of Republicans. And that’s why the bases have such a huge influence on determining the ultimate candidates and the ultimately the representatives that we send to Washington, D.C.. So what we’ve seen is that because climate change has become one of the top priorities among the liberal Democratic base, it’s why all 278 people who ran for the presidency on the Democratic side, or at least have felt like that many back into a pack in 2020. They all had climate plans. They were all competing with each other on who could be stronger. In fact, Governor Jay Inslee really deserves a lot of credit because he centered his entire campaign on climate. And granted, he didn’t win, but he absolutely changed the conversation in the party. And then Joe Biden does something very strange. Okay. That is that the traditional way to become president is that you run to your base. Okay. So run left. If you’re a Democrat, you go to your to the right as a Republican to win the nomination. But then generally, candidates then shift to the middle because they now have to win a general election. They want to, you know, try to appeal to a few people in the other party, the three people left in America who are undecided swing voters. That’s the traditional way to win elections. Joe Biden on climate change actually does the opposite. His climate commitments became much stronger as a general candidate than they were as a primary candidate. Now, why would he do that? Now, I have no inside information, but I can read the data and I can see that he desperately needed to get in. In fact, elections are increasingly being driven by what’s called getting out your base, getting your own people to show up and actually vote. And in particular, he needed young people, people of color and women in the suburbs to come out and vote in record numbers. And they did. And it turns out that those three groups all happened to care a lot about climate change. And so that’s an example of how our particular political structure shapes the way that policy gets done. And I think it’s a major reason why the infrastructure bill, the Trips Act and of course, the Inflation Reduction Act all got passed, which are not only the most important investments in climate action in U.S. history, but arguably global history.
Bill Loveless [00:28:27] Looking at that that survey, one thing that stood out to me was that and again, this is looking across the board of people of various political persuasions, Democrats, Republicans, independents. But 54% considered it an overwhelming need for the president and Congress to make global warming a high or very high priority, which to me didn’t seem like that high a number. But I guess it’s all, you know, sort of diluted by the numbers that feel very strongly in the opposite direction. But. But when you asked in that same survey about specific types of policies, the support was bigger. You know, for example, you know, 79% support funding, more research into renewable energy sources. Okay. I guess that’s probably not that surprising. But 74% support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant and using the money to reduce other taxes. 66% support requiring electric utilities to produce 100% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2035. That’s consistent with what President Biden has called for. Why is the support for individual policies stronger than that, for simply making global warming a higher or a very high priority?
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:29:38] So we have to remember that, of course, climate change and energy are obviously very deeply connected and intertwined issues, no doubt. I mean, for solving climate change is ultimately about transitioning from a 19th century energy system where we’re still digging stuff out of the ground coal, oil and gas, and setting it on fire to power our societies to a 21st century system, which is harnessing the energy that flows around us at all times. From the sun, from the wind, from the tides, from the atom, from the power, from the heat beneath our feet. Right. So we are in what is a civilizational historic moment of that transition. A huge civilizational Advances are based on shift to new sources of energy. So this is like there’s no way to overstate how important this transition is. But people use energy and they can support or oppose different kinds of energy policies regardless of their views of climate change. So it’s while they absolutely there are lots of correlations, they’re not perfectly correlated. And so what we see is that a lot of Republicans, for example, support clean energy. In fact, we’ve seen some drop off in Republican support for clean energy. So I want to say that we are seeing something important and a little worrying happening there. And you’re seeing that because of, you know, certain comments from leaders in their field claiming that, oh, let’s just take the most recent example. Former President Trump claiming that, you know, wind turbines, offshore wind turbines are driving whales batty and others saying that they’re actually killing whales. I mean, this is ridiculous. There’s no evidence of that at all. And if anything I age changes is doing a much worse job on on whales. And there’s much more to be said there. But just to say that this is the power of what we call political elite, cuz and that’s a fancy political science term, which basically means that when leaders lead, followers follow. And if your trusted leader, whoever that is, is telling you either climate change is a hoax and you don’t need to worry about it, or alternatively, your leader is saying climate change is a crucial existential problem. Those people who trust that individual are likely to change their own beliefs and attitudes in accordance. And so it’s just to say that’s why what Republican leaders say about this issue can be so important.
Bill Loveless [00:31:56] As much as many people are concerned about climate change, I mean, over the past year in light of the Ukraine war, energy security has been a big issue, too. I mean, simply worrying that you might not have fuel for your home or your or your vehicles in the United States and certainly in Europe and elsewhere. So to what extent does that sort of crop up as a consideration in these sorts of surveys?
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:32:21] Absolutely. So, of course, the underlying experience and system is constantly being exposed to different kinds of shocks. So there’s not a stable system. In fact, I think we all have the experience these days of feeling like we’re living in a roller world. Like things are changing so fast and in such deep and profound ways that it’s very difficult to even catch your breath. Like we’re all experiencing that. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine just being one of many things you could point to is like, what a shock to the system. But I actually find that a really interesting story. So, yes, on the one hand, energy prices go up and you do see, you know, a greater push for more oil exploration and natural gas, liquefied natural gas export around the world and so on. So those are the things are happening. But what I also find interesting is that Europe did not take that as an opportunity to reopen all those coal fired power plants that they had shut down in recent years. And I think that’s a major win for the climate movement. And we don’t often recognize it enough, is that they have been so successful at. Changing the deeper social, cultural and political climate of climate change. So in other words, the movement itself, the. The fact that policymakers across Europe are fully on board, like they had already passed all kinds of policies to address climate change, to move Europe more quickly towards a 21st century energy system. Even the shock of that event was not enough to make them suddenly say, okay, well, forget all that climate stuff, forget all that clean energy thing. We’re going back to old dirty energy. They didn’t, by and large do that. And I think that as an example, it’s a really important example to point to of the success of the climate movement, at least in the European context.
Bill Loveless [00:34:08] I’m in Washington and, you know, I spent much of my career in journalism covering the policy fields, including some issues that are time may seem esoteric, but big topical these days is infrastructure reform. And the survey that you folks did show that while there’s a lot of support for building solar and wind farms and installing electric vehicle charging stations locally, just 51% expressed support for building high voltage power lines to distribute the clean energy. And this comes at a time when infrastructure reform is one of those topics on Capitol Hill that seems to enjoy some bipartisan support. With that, it seems that perhaps maybe that’s just a matter of that’s too esoteric an issue for many people. But it’s a big priority in Congress, and it’s an important matter to consider when you look to the transition to a greener economy.
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:35:00] Absolutely. And so this is one of the thousand and one things that we are in the middle of transitions on. Right, is that we’re still operating with a creaky, antiquated, you know, well out of date energy grid in this country. And so, yes, we’re building all these new solar farms, wind power farms, starting to generate tons of new clean, renewable energy. But we can’t get it to market because with the transmission system connecting it to the places where we use the energy is so old and out of date. So, yes, this is a huge, crucial need. I would say this is an area where at least on the public side, they’re still coming to grips with and still trying to get their heads around. Well, what is this? Because, again, remember, most people don’t think about energy systems. They don’t think about energy grids. Like I flipped the switch and the lights come on, right. I turn on my heat and the heater comes on like really in terms of people’s daily experience. You know, they really don’t have much to remind them that they are part of a grid. They are part of this massive, you know, thousands of miles system that provides electricity everywhere until it breaks. Then suddenly we all pay our pay close attention to energy. So it’s just to say that this is one of those areas that we still need a lot of work. Fortunately, there is a lot of money in the IRA, too, and the infrastructure built to continue to build these out. But we are also seeing that there is a very powerful and has been for many, many decades now, a very powerful, very well-funded, very sophisticated disinformation campaign being led by the fossil fuel industry and some of its allies to try to block and slow this transition as much as possible, because, frankly, these are some of the world’s wealthiest, most profitable companies. They would like to maintain the status quo as long as possible. Thank you very much. So what we’re now seeing is that they are supporting all of these and I’m using air quotes here for your listeners, grassroots movements of 15, 20 people in a single county in rural Michigan or rural Wisconsin who are now trying to say, you know, we don’t want those transmission lines, we don’t want wind turbines because they cause cancer or whatever else. Right. Often based on complete nonsense. And yet because they’re organized for power. And I mean that in that sense, both political power and energy power, they are increasingly starting to block some of these things. So I think it’s actually a really big wake up sign for the larger climate movement. And I mean that in this broader sense, not just advocates, but everybody. Everyone who cares about the climate is to raise their voice and say, actually, we want more of this. We want our energy to come from clean, renewable energy. We want to be able to control our own energy future. We don’t want to be reliant on Petro states like Russia or Iran or Iraq or Saudi Arabia or the UAE, etc.. And so, you know, and plus all the jobs and everything that comes with it. So it’s just to say that this is a struggle over the our our collective energy future. And if you sit it out, then those small set of voices are going to create the future that you’re going to be forced to live in.
Bill Loveless [00:38:13] Picking a another topic in that survey, nuclear power. There was support for nuclear building. A nuclear power plants came in at only 34%. And of course, nuclear has a long history. Of unfavorable public sentiment. And it seems like that negative perception isn’t going away. Is there anything that indicates that might change?
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:38:35] Yeah, it’s such an interesting case. So what’s also interesting about that is that we see that it’s higher support for the concept of nuclear. Like should we be building more nuclear power plants? I think it’s over 50% of Americans say yes and a lot of Republicans. But when you ask, should we build a nuclear power plant in your area, your local area, then support drops pretty dramatically and you don’t see that drop in support for wind power or solar power. So it’s it’s again, it’s fine if somebody else has a hard flip, but I don’t want to live next to one is the kind of pattern you’re getting there. Look, nuclear is such a complicated and dark history and that it was a technology that was revealed to the world in the form of the atomic bomb, and it was developed in secrecy and it was revealed as this horrific destructive weapon. And, of course, probably many of you have just watched Oppenheimer. So you’ve got and this is all fresh to be reminded. This is the world that that this particular technology was born in. And that still shows up in the way people imagine this issue today. So one of my favorite questions is to ask people something like what’s the first thought or image that comes to mind when you hear the words nuclear power or radiation or things like this? And what we see even to this day is that one of the most common just images that comes naturally to people’s head is mushroom clouds and nuclear war, which has nothing to do really with nuclear power. But there have been major nuclear accidents that we are still seeing the reverberations of culturally from Three Mile Island to Fukushima most recently. Now, from a purely, you know, amount of lives lost and damage caused those accidents at pale insignificance to the number of people whose lives are lost from the burning of fossil fuels every year. It’s been estimated that about 8 million people around the world die every year because of the air pollution they breathe from fossil fuels. Very, very few people have died as a result of nuclear accidents. And yet it doesn’t matter because nuclear is about radiation, this invisible cancer causing thing that can kill you, let alone all of the associations with nuclear war and, you know, proliferation of potential nuclear weapons and so on. All that said, remember that perception has been based on fission, and now we are beginning to move into an era where we are increasingly seeing tantalizing signs that we might and this is probably a still a 20 year project, but we are getting closer to being able to to see the future of nuclear fusion, which is a very different technology which will not produce the waste product that this does that can be designed in ways that can’t melt down and and so on. So it’s just to say, I think this is a technology that we are going to see a lot of struggle in people’s hearts and minds over the meaning of it and the value of it. And just the last thing to say here is that we’ve seen this change already within the environmental movement, who used to be pretty much universally against nuclear power. And then as they come to grips with the climate crisis, I mean, nuclear power, aside from the CO2 emitted by the mining and the drilling and the and the construction of nuclear power plants, but nonetheless, the operation of a nuclear power plant is basically carbon free. And that means it’s a solid source of non-carbon based electricity, which is what we desperately need to address climate change. So you’ve seen many within the environmental movement beginning to say, you know, I’m going to hold my nose. I don’t like nuclear power on lots of levels, but climate change is a very real and existential threat, and we’ve got to use the technologies we have to try to get us to a safe and stable climate as quickly as possible.
Bill Loveless [00:42:22] Now, we talked a moment ago about the Inflation Reduction Act. And, you know, the Biden administration and Democrats are aware of challenges they face in getting the word out to the public on this law. At The Washington Post reported this week that Democrats, the administration and political allies are plan to step up advocacy of the Inflation Reduction Act, which, as we discussed, is pumping billions of dollars into clean energy and other climate programs. This is all at a time when when the newspaper’s polling shows 71% of Americans have heard, quote, little or nothing at all about the law One year after its passage, your research has come up with similar results. What what sort of messaging might work for them?
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:43:08] So, first of all, they just need to talk about it. If you’re not messaging on it, no one’s going to hear it. So as much as the quality of communication matters, I think we often forget quantity. If the volume is basically 0 to 1, guess what? Nobody’s going to hear it. So one is they just need to. Talk about it. But secondly, they need to help people connect the dots because, again, Inflation Reduction Act does not mean anything to most people about climate change. They didn’t call it the Climate Change Reduction Act. They called it the Inflation Reduction Act now. They had their political reasons for doing so. But what we see in our data is that when people are told about what’s actually in the bill, it’s the climate provisions that people are most excited about. And that’s true across all Americans, and it’s particularly true among Democrats. Democrats haven’t heard of the IRA either. And like we were talking about earlier in this conversation, the base of the Democratic Party is really eager to know what can we do about this? They want to know. And even his own base doesn’t know what is in the doesn’t know about the IRA, doesn’t know what’s in the IRA, doesn’t know all the amazing things that it’s already doing to help reduce national emissions. So they’ve not only failed to communicate effectively with the whole country, they haven’t even communicated effectively with their own base of their own party. And that’s going to be crucial because if you hadn’t noticed, we have an election coming up next year. And again, there’s going to be a critical need to get out the base of the two respective parties to win that election. It’s not going to be about just swing voters. It’s going to be about getting your people to the polls. And if young people have the idea that Biden hasn’t done anything on climate, that’s simply not true. But nonetheless, if that’s their perception, then many will be like, well, I’m not going to vote for this guy, okay, I’m going to or I’ll just sit home. And that’s the danger politically. So they have a big job to help people understand. Yes, we’ve actually taken some significant action. Unfortunately, they’ve also taken some action to support more fossil fuel development for a variety of reasons. But that is the message that unfortunately has gotten through to many young people. It’s hard for a young person who’s not following politics, not following energy policy like you and I do to understand what the heck is going on here.
Bill Loveless [00:45:27] You know, one topic that, you know, prevalent these days is the auto strike in the United States. And in looking at that issue, there’s a lot of discussion about, you know, what is the payoff for, say, auto workers from a transition to a green economy. And there’s a lot of consternation there. Understandably so. Over, you know what these green jobs and electric vehicle factories might pay and how they might compare to what auto workers have traditionally made. And I think there’s a lot of confusion. There’s a lot of misinformation over that. How do you look at that issue? I mean, I don’t know if it’s something you’ve surveyed, but it’s something that comes up in your in your look at public opinion on these sorts of issues. Yeah.
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:46:10] I mean, I think this is part of what we were talking about before about we are all in this roller coaster ride of transition and transitions don’t happen cleanly and smoothly. And everybody, you know, holds hands and sings Kumbaya. That’s not how transitions work. And, of course, this is why you’re seeing so much discussion, at least in policy circles, around the idea of a just transition. How do we ensure that those people who have made their livelihoods in the old fossil fuel based economy are brought with us as we go into that transition? And so it’s not just auto workers. It’s of course, it’s, you know, fossil fuel workers, it’s coal miners and people working on the oil rigs and so on. How can they be part of this transition? And so I think that’s actually some of the really important and hard work that still needs to be done is how do we bring these communities with us to help actually lead the charge, to help? You know, and again, in the fossil fuel industry, for example. These are some of the most sophisticated people doing things like drilling underground. Well, guess what we need to do? We need to develop geothermal energy. There is a ton of innovation that has to come from that that field in order to really harness one of the most powerful, inexhaustible sources of energy on this planet, in this planet. And that’s underground. And that happens to be the exact expertise of the people working in the fossil fuel industry. And so we’ve seen a little bit in here from different companies that have put their toes in the water but not really coming in and saying, you know what? We’re going to rethink ourselves and no longer be an oil company. We’re going to be an energy company and we’re going to solve and take and try to figure out how to exploit one of the most inexhaustible sources of energy globally, and that’s geothermal. So that’s an example of where that transition they could actually help lead it. But thus far, they’ve said, nope, we’d rather stick with our current business model, which is pulling hydrocarbons out of the ground and setting them on fire. And we think we can be more profitable continuing to do that for the next 20, 30 years. Unfortunately, we all suffer the consequences of climate change if we continue to admit the carbon pollution that that will entail.
Bill Loveless [00:48:17] Tony, you’ve described some of what surveys can tell us. What don’t they tell us? What topics in energy and climate change are? Difficult to survey.
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:48:26] I think ultimately this comes down to the questions you ask. Now, I would say what it can’t what surveys can’t do is they can’t do the equivalent of what’s called ethnographic work or what’s even called qualitative research, where people literally go in and become part of communities and, you know, like, let’s say, fossil fuel workers. A survey can give you some little bits of information about how the fossil fuel worker thinks about climate change, how they think about the oil industry, you know, what their hopes and dreams for the future are. You can ask certain questions like that, but that’s very different than being embedded in that community and really understanding how those communities work. Who are the opinion leaders? What are the ways that information flows and misinformation flows? So it’s just to say that this is the whole other side of social science, which is qualitative research, which is incredibly valuable at helping you understand the texture that you know, the fabric of societies themselves as we are knitted together in particular places.
Bill Loveless [00:49:25] Where does all this research leave you in terms of your outlook when you talk with your students optimistic about how things might turn out in these coming decades? Not so optimistic or or what?
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:49:36] Yeah, I would say very mixed emotions. I mean, you can’t be paying attention and either be a drummer because there’s so many good things happening around us. There are so many millions of people who’ve rolled up their sleeves and are taking action. And I will say personally, that’s what gives me tremendous hope, is, you know, we actually have a national radio program and podcast called Yale Climate Connections. And we profile those stories of people from all over the country who are rolling up their sleeves saying, I’m not going to stand on the sidelines and just watch the world burn. I’m going to do what I can to get involved and make a difference in my in my sphere of influence. It could be my household, could be my local PTA, could be running for Congress. It could be joining a group to demand changes in my local community. There’s so much great work happening and unfortunately, most of us never hear about that in the mainstream news media. So it’s just to say there is a lot to be hopeful about. And yet at the same time, when you’re looking at what the climate system is actually doing, the window is closing. It’s closing quickly. And this is not an issue that you can keep kicking the can down the road for another decade and another decade. We’re starting to get dangerously close to what we know are tipping points. There are thresholds sitting in that climate system where once you cross them, the system reorganizes, it changes its regime fundamentally and there’s no going back. It’s not like at that point, once the ice sheets are irrevocably melting away, you don’t just say, okay, now we get it, now it’s serious, Now we’re going to shut off the CO2 pollution and it’ll all go back and the ice will reform. No, it doesn’t work like that. It is both incredibly hopeful, the things that we see, because in the end, this is what it’s going to take is the hard work of people all over the world working together, uniting their voices, demanding the action not just at the local level, but demanding that their political leaders and their business leaders act with greater urgency. And yet, at the same time, looking at events like this year where we see global temperatures skyrocketing. And just to put that in context, remember, this year is going to be a cool summer. In 20 years.
Bill Loveless [00:51:45] There’s so much here to try to unwind when it comes to public opinion and how we can all respond to these these urgent circumstances. And I’m glad, by the way, you brought up your podcast, Climate Connections. I would certainly endorse listening to it. It’s a great two minute hit on Monday through Friday on a variety of these topics. Gives you a quick idea of some steps that can be taken on what some people, not only in the United States but around the world are doing to address climate change. Tony. Liza West, thank you for taking the time today to join us on Columbia Energy Exchange.
Anthony Leiserowitz [00:52:19] Well, thank you, Bill. Such a pleasure to be with you.
Bill Loveless [00:52:25] That’s it for this week’s episode of Columbia Energy Exchange. Thank you again, Anthony Leiserowitz. And thank you for listening. The show is brought to you by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. The show is hosted by Jason Bordoff and me, Bill Loveless. The show is produced by Aaron Hartig and Steven Lacy from Post Script Media. Additional support from Daniel Prop, Natalie Volk, Lily Lee and Q Lee. Roy Campanella is the sound engineer. For more information about the podcast or the Center on Global Energy Policy, visit us online at Energy Policy. Dot Colombia, Dot Edu or follow us on social media at Columbia. You energy and you can rate the show on Apple or Spotify. You can also let us know what you think by leaving a review. If you really like this episode, share it with a friend or a colleague. It helps us reach more listeners like yourself. We’ll see you next week.
As we move on from the hottest summer on record, climate change and its effects remain in the national zeitgeist. The topic has been featured in both Democratic and Republican presidential discussions. The Biden administration continues to advocate for the Inflation Reduction Act, which aims to fight climate change by cleaning up various pollution-heavy industries.
But politics are just one lens for looking at climate change. A series of surveys from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change study public opinion of climate change from different perspectives.
So, how worried, frustrated, or hopeful are people feeling about the climate crisis? What specifically do registered voters in America think about the issue? And how do those sentiments compare to other countries around the world?
This week host Bill Loveless talks with Anthony Leiserowitz about Yale’s and George Mason’s “Climate Change in the American Mind” report series, and beliefs held around the world.
Anthony is the founder and director of the Yale University Program on Climate Change Communication, and a senior research scientist at the Yale School of the Environment. He has worked with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academy of Sciences, the World Economic Forum, and many other major organizations to understand the psychological, cultural, and political factors that shape climate change beliefs. In 2020, he was named one of the most influential climate scientists in the world by Reuters. Anthony also hosts “Climate Connections,’’ a daily 90-second podcast about the climate crisis.
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