The American climate conundrum

SU students from across the country represent the United States' divided perceptions of climate change.

For Eric King, learning about climate change for the first time was a confusing experience. His eighth grade science class in Columbus, Ohio, was taught two different theories: First, that the changes in weather patterns were part of the natural rhythms of the Earth and not connected to human actions, and second, that climate change was a consequence of greenhouse gas emissions and other human activities. 

Photo: Derek Jones Photography
A reimagined American flag at the April 22 March for Science in Washington, D.C.

 “At the end people walked out saying ‘well no one really knows what’s going on,’” the magazine journalism senior said.

At the time King didn’t understand why something he was learning in science class was so hotly debated. But as King grew up and continued his education, realized that many of his friend’s parents relied on the local AEP Energy for their paychecks, and that while the rest of the country experienced tornados and hurricanes, Columbus avoided extreme weather changes thanks to its spot in the center of the country.

For people in coastal cities prone to drought, wildfires and other natural disasters like San Francisco and Los Angeles, this lack of concern and blame avoidance is alarming.

Public relations sophomore Sarah Quady says she was conditioned to conserve from a young age, and that her first formal introduction to climate change was through a showing of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth in a seventh grade class. Her Berkeley, California, elementary school maintained a compost pile, and a lesson on proper recycling was a yearly occurrence.

When the drought hit in 2014, dropping water levels and snow-free slopes at the nearby ski resorts were a stark reminder of the very real consequences of human actions on the climate. When she came to Syracuse, the sheer quantity of wasted food and sparse recycling practices on campus frustrated her.

The differences in King and Quady’s experiences are telltale of the environments they grew up in. As part of its wider mission to understand perceptions of climate change across the country, The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication conducted two in-depth studies of climate change for residents of San Francisco and Americans in Columbus in 2013.

The differences in levels of concern and knowledge are glaring. While a firm majority of both populations believe global warming is indeed happening, only half of Columbus residents believe humans are to blame, compared to two in three San Franciscans. And while 77 percent of San Franciscans’ say they are worried about global warming, only 56 percent of people in Columbus are.

The differences are likely due to the personal experiences residents have had with global warming – it’s hard to be concerned about something you’ve never seen. Only 45 percent of Columbus residents say they have personally experienced the effects of global warming, while 63 percent of San Franciscans say they have.

Unfortunately, the differences in the perceived threat and conservation habits that King and Quady experienced in their communities, and the trends played out in the 2013 studies reoccur across the country.

The study mapped out the results of a 2016 survey done on the American public that measured beliefs, engagement, and levels of concern about global warming. The results closely resemble the neat blue and red lines drawn in the most recent election. Residents living near the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are most concerned about the personal risks of global warming, while states in the center of the country are skeptical.

Human Problems

The lack of consensus across the country, and a trend toward disbelief in the center can be attributed to basic human ways of thinking.

A study titled “Improving public engagement with climate change: Five best practice insights from psychological science” published in the journal “Perspectives on Psychological Science,” identified five human behaviors that prohibit many from being concerned enough to actually do something about climate change.

One is that the human brain privileges experience over analysis, or in simpler terms, people are more likely to believe in something if they experience it firsthand. In general, humans have a habit of dismissing things that aren’t put in front of them everyday, and the study discusses the “out of sight out of mind” theory.

According to Yale’s 2016 survey, 36 percent of Americans say they have personally experienced effects of global warming, and so it makes sense that only 41 percent of people are concerned global warming will harm them personally.

The human brain is also wired to respond to social norms. When it comes to climate change, habits like turning off the water while brushing teeth and separating compost from recycling come from seeing other people do the same things. And, if no one brings up about how scary the changing weather is, or how tough new water restrictions are, it likely won’t be a topic of conversation. The study from Yale found that only one in three Americans discuss global warming with family and friends “often” or “occasionally”, and 67 percent say they rarely or never discuss it.

People also don’t like to lose, be it a job at a coal plant, a green lawn, or money on oil stocks, and losing to an invisible enemy can make that loss a more painful one. The study called this the “nobody likes losing but everyone likes gaining” lesson.

On the upswing

Although climate change can sometimes be a gloom-inducing topic, America has actually come a long way in recent years. Sharon Moran, a leader in the SUNY-ESF Environmental and Natural Resources Policy program said that efforts to clear air pollution have been largely successful.

The country has been on an upswing since the 1970s and Richard Nixon’s decision to formally declare a set of national environmental policies and goals, and implement things like the Clean Air and Endangered Species Acts. The Yale Program on Climate Change also identified a change in the American population’s awareness of climate change since their national survey taken in 2008.

Syracuse University has tried to be at the forefront of climate centered initiatives, and recently won the EPA’s Green Power Challenge for using more green power than any school in the Atlantic Coast conference. SU students are also taking actions to do their part to help the environment. In July, the campus bookstore will make the switch from plastic to reusable bags thanks to a combined effort by the Students Association, Students of Sustainability at SU and the Energy Systems and Sustainability Department. Although these changes may seem small, the willingness to tackle the issue shows a new understanding that climate change is here to stay, and that going green must be more than just a fad.

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