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Why Concern About Climate Change Doesn't Lead to Action

by Katie Moritz
August 23, 2017 | Our Future

A majority of people living in the U.S. are concerned about climate change, according to a Gallup poll. Nonprofits and companies are spearheading initiatives to change the climate trajectory of the planet.

But their work can feel very piecemeal. And even though lots of people are concerned about climate change, it doesn't feel like every individual is on board for a solution, nor does there seem to be a cohesive push to diminish or eliminate human activities that are harming Earth.

Dave Hardisty, an assistant professor of marketing and behavioral science at the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business who studies how people make important decisions, said that "(being environmentally friendly) is not going to effect us now so much—it’s in the future, so who cares about them, there’s uncertainty."

“This may sound a little weird, but people often ask, Why aren’t we doing something about climate change?” he said in a previous Rewire article. “I’m actually impressed that we’re doing as much as we are. From a rational economic perspective we shouldn’t be doing anything."

People are more likely to make a simple decision that maybe isn't best for the planet in the long-run in order to have certainty in the moment, he said. Wondering about what will happen in the future is difficult and abstract.

Who should take charge?

That mindset might be contributing to de-centralized efforts to do better for the planet.

Stanford University sociology professor Doug McAdam believes climate change is still (mistakenly, in his opinion) not seen by most as an immediate threat, so the issue doesn't have the power to mobilize folks in the U.S. en masse. He wrote about his theories in a recent article for the Annual Review of Political Science.

A lack of "ownership of the issue by any significant segment of the American public" (among other things, like climate change deniers) is gumming up major progress on the issue, McAdam argues. In an interview with Stanford, he contrasted climate change activism to activism surrounding "police violence against African Americans, or sexual assaults against women, or the threat of deportation against Hispanics." All of those issues directly affect a specific subset of people who rally together to make change in response.

"Grassroots action on a given issue is much more likely if a specific population segment identifies with and is committed to action on the issue," McAdam said. "No clear segment of the U.S. population currently 'owns' the climate change issue."

Why grassroots work is necessary

More people in the U.S. are worried about climate change than not, but there are more climate change denier organizations than climate change activism organizations, McAdam said, and those denier organizations are better funded.

The more than 400 formal climate change organizations in the country "generally eschew forms of non-institutionalized, or otherwise disruptive, action in favor of the more conventional tactics of lobbying and public education," he said.

"But relative to the... climate change denier organizations, the top-down climate change organizations have had virtually no impact on environmental policy at the federal level," McAdam said.

Concerted and sustained grassroots efforts, people working together outside of government systems, might be able to make change these formal organizations cannot. They key is to engage the right population to claim the issue and translate it into more than an abstract worry.

Changing the world for the better starts with each one of us. Even thinking about your coffee and your clothes differently can help move the planet in the right direction.

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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