Global Warming's Six Americas

By Rusty Pritchard 9-24-2009

Climate Week is upon us, and as world leaders gather at the UN and the G-20 to nibble away at the problem of international cooperation to address the issue, popular American responses seem to veer from cheerleading to condemnation. On Tuesday morning, President Obama gave his first real climate speech (finally). And last week at the Value Voter Summit, a religious right confab in DC, one workshop seemed intent to link climate change action with a pro-death, pro-abortion agenda, with slanderous accusations and exaggerated rhetoric (but the speaker, a leading climate skeptic, wisely backed away from that language when several pro-life Christians, including me, showed up to challenge those assertions).

In reality, the American scene is not so neatly divided into climate alarmists and climate deniers. A useful recent report describes "Global Warming's Six Americas," and it uses extensive surveys to distinguish between groups that differ on climate change beliefs, attitudes, risk perceptions, values, public policy preferences, and barriers to action.

The Alarmed (18%) are fully convinced of the reality and seriousness of climate change and are already taking individual, consumer, and political action to address it. The Concerned (33%) -- the largest of the six Americas -- are also convinced that global warming is happening and a serious problem, but have not yet engaged the issue personally. Three other Americas -- the Cautious (19%), the Disengaged (12%) and the Doubtful (11%) -- represent different stages of understanding and acceptance of the problem, and none are actively involved. The final America -- the Dismissive (7%) -- are very sure it is not happening and are actively involved as opponents of a national effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

I assume many Sojourners readers, concerned as they are for the global poor who are most at risk from climate change, fall into the first two categories -- Alarmed and already taking action, or Concerned and waiting. But we dare not write off the other categories, because the Dismissive are not at rest. Sadly, the segments most likely to identify as evangelical Christians are the Dismissives, followed by the Doubtfuls. But there are many religious folks among the Cautious and Disengaged, and these are also the groups admitting to the highest likelihood of changing their minds.

We must be willing to communicate winsomely to bring these folks on board. Interestingly, according to the survey, the Disengaged segment shows a higher than average concern for justice and egalitarian values -- so there is a pool of Americans who may respond to clear moral messages about the relationship between global warming and justice.

But communicating winsomely is not the only skill climate advocates need. We also do need to be ready to give an answer for our positions against the worst kinds of misinformation campaigns. Right now climate deniers are making the most hay out of the leveling-off of global temperature increases following the incredibly hot El Nino year of 1998. "Global warming has now stopped," they say. Climate activists have paid so much attention to the human causes of global warming (mainly carbon dioxide pollution from burning fossil fuels) that when natural variability manifests itself (as it will), the deniers have a field day. We have to be clear and conservative about the science, which is more than sufficient to warrant action without needing exaggeration. Recommended sites for answering skeptics' questions are Grist Magazine's "How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic" and, where real scientists blog.

The UK Meteorological Office just issued a report putting the leveling-off of the last decade in perspective. Climate skeptics might have claimed that global warming stopped more than seven other times in the 20th Century, but they would have been wrong every time, as they are this time, when each time warmer temperatures returned with a vengeance.

Differences in global average near-surface temperatures - 1850 to July 2009.

Differences in global average near-surface temperatures -- 1850 to July 2009.

Finally, as the Republicans for Environmental Protection have argued forever, conservation is conservative. If progressive Christians want to make a difference in communicating this issue to their more conservative brothers and sisters (and they must), the project can't be about asking people to give up their cherished political perspectives to climb on board a "liberal" bandwagon. There is a limited but strong indigenous voice among conservatives on climate change, but it is at risk of being drowned out in the backlash against current administrative initiatives on other issues. Encourage and respect such voices, while realizing that you may differ on recommended policies.

A great resource for connecting with conservatives who are skeptical about the science (or to give yourself a refresher course) is a soon-to-be-released book by a climate scientist and an evangelical pastor (a wife and husband team), who together walk through the basics of what a citizen should know about God's creation and the climate system. You can pre-order it now on Amazon: A Climate for Change

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