Americans rarely talk about climate change with family and friends.
Tragically, research shows that this climate silence reinforces the dangerously wrong belief that climate change isn’t an existential threat requiring urgent action.
But a major new study led by Yale researchers finds that just discussing the issue with friends and family leads them to learn more facts about the climate crisis, which in turn leads to greater understanding and concern about the issue.
The study, titled “Discussing global warming leads to greater acceptance of climate science” was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Climatologist Michael Mann said that this study “casts doubt on claims in some quarters that the climate change issue has become too ideologically-driven for facts to matter.”
“[It] confirms what might seem common sense,” Mann wrote in an email to ThinkProgress. “The more people actually understand about the science of climate change, the more they are likely to accept the scientific consensus — that climate change is real, human-caused, and a threat to human civilization.”
“Meaningful discussions and dialogue is how humans learn,” environmental sociologist Robert Brulle told ThinkProgress over email. “This study clearly shows that non-polarized discussions within a trusted social network can lead to increased understanding and acceptance of climate science.”
Brulle, who has authored numerous studies on climate communications, added, “Engaging in, rather than avoiding, climate change discussions is something that we should all be doing.”
Yet, most Americans “rarely” or “never” talk about climate change with family and friends, according to the latest research from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
This climate silence leads the public to underestimate how many other Americans realize climate change is happening. They “underestimate the social consensus on global warming,” as the Yale researchers explained. Remarkably, the Yale survey found that the public estimates that just 54% of other Americans realize climate change is happening, but in reality, 69% do.
At the same time, a 2018 study found that “only 11 percent of the U.S. public correctly estimate the scientific consensus on climate change as higher than 90 percent.” It also found that telling people how big the actual consensus is “increases their perception of the scientific norm by 16.2 percentage points on a 100-point scale.”
Inspired by the fact that increased awareness increases acceptance, the authors of the PNAS study decided to find out what would happen if they tracked over time “changes in perceptions of scientific consensus as a result of discussion with family and friends.”
They also tracked how perceptions of the consensus affect climate change discussions as well as how discussions indirectly affect people’s understanding of, and concern about, climate change.
The study concluded that “increased perceptions of scientific agreement led to increases in discussions about climate change.” This suggests that “climate conversations can initiate a positively reinforcing cycle between learning, worry, and further conversation.”
In other words, talking about the climate crisis to family and friends motivates them to learn about the overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is happening and humans are the cause — along with other key facts. Increased understanding of the consensus in turns leads to an increase in understanding and concern about the climate.
The study’s lead author, Yale social psychologist Matthew Goldberg, told The Los Angeles Times Monday that talking more about climate change is “massively important, particularly because we are not doing it enough.”
There are a variety of ways to communicate the consensus message to friends and family. The simplest version is to state that 97% of climate scientists understand that humans are causing climate change.
A more specific version: The overwhelming majority of climate scientists — 97% — understand that humans are the primary cause of global warming since 1950.
And a good analogy? We are as certain that humans are responsible for recent climate change as we are that cigarettes are dangerous to your health.
However you say it, experts agree: It’s vital everyone talk about climate change with as many of their friends and family as possible.