The Big Idea: What Do People Really Believe About Climate Change?
Gretchen Gavett is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review -----
Anthony Leiserowitz directs the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, studying how Americans respond to the issue of climate change. What do they understand (and misunderstand) about the causes, the consequences and the solutions? How do they perceive the risks? What kinds of policies do people support or oppose? And what kinds of behaviors (consumer, social and political) are people engaged in around these issues?
Leiserowitz’s research offers business leaders valuable insight into the attitudes and actions of their customers and employees. Without this knowledge, decisions you make about advertising campaigns or getting internal buy-in for sustainability projects can backfire. In this edited interview, Leiserowitz outlines what his data shows, how it’s changed over time and what it means for leaders today.
Q: What do we know about climate change beliefs in the U.S.?
A: We’ve been doing nationally representative surveys of over 1,000 Americans twice a year for more than a decade. We’ve found that the United States is now at an all-time record high in terms of people accepting that climate change is real and that it’s caused by human beings. Worry levels are at an all-time high, and public support for many policies are at or near highs.
The longer-term trajectory is much more interesting. The prior high-water mark in public opinion was back in 2008, an upward trend that began in the early 2000s. This included the 2004 release of the global warming disaster movie “The Day After Tomorrow” (I did a national study on the impact and found that the film increased public climate change beliefs, worries and support for action among the millions of people who saw it); the 2007 report of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], which was very strong in saying that humans are, indeed, responsible for climate change; “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006; Al Gore and the IPCC winning the Nobel Prize in 2007; and Arnold Schwarzenegger passing AB 32, California’s global warming law, which has had enormous consequences for California and was a model for much of the rest of the world. And in 2008, the Republican nominee for U.S. president was Sen. John McCain, who, for years, had been one of the primary champions of climate action in Congress; in fact, climate action was a core part of his campaign.
Then 2008 happens. Barack Obama wins the election. And we see a dramatic drop in public opinion from 2008, bottoming out in 2010 — basically an 18-month period in which we saw a 14-percentage-point drop in the proportion of Americans who even believed global warming was happening (71% to 57%).
Q: What happened?
A: We did a big analysis to understand why. We found that it wasn’t the economy or media coverage or cold-weather events like “Snowmageddon.” It seems to have been driven by one major factor: In political science terms, it’s what we call “political elite cues,” which is just a fancy way of saying that when leaders lead, followers follow. The key thing that happened in that time period was the rise of the Tea Party and the strong rightward lurch of the Republican Party. As a whole, they basically crawled out on the last twig on the longest branch away from climate science. It became a common Republican talking point that climate change is a hoax.
Over the intervening 10 years, we’ve slowly seen overall public opinion coming back until we are now at and slightly above (depending on which measure you’re looking at) where we were back then. In one sense, we’re now back to where we were in 2008, but that obscures what’s going on below the surface. Using a political lens, you see that the primary shift has actually not happened among Republicans. The primary change has happened among Democrats and Independents, for whom concern about climate change has soared. But among Republicans, it has pretty much stayed flat.
Q: And how are Americans as consumers responding to climate change? What do companies need to know about their behavior?
A: Our work identifying global warming’s “six Americas” is a useful framework for a conversation about consumers. This framework is based on a segmentation analysis, analogous to a consumer market segmentation. These six audiences are not based on party, gender, race or income but, rather, on how people respond to the issue of climate change: how are they thinking about it, how are they feeling about it and what are they doing about it.
These six groups range in a spectrum. It starts with the “alarmed” at one end, people who are fully convinced it’s happening, caused by humans and urgent, and who strongly want action but aren’t yet sure what exactly they can do. “Dismissive,” on the other extreme, includes those who are firmly convinced that climate change isn’t real, and most of them think it’s a hoax. In the middle you have audiences we call the “concerned,” the “cautious,” the “disengaged” and the “doubtful.” Each audience comes at climate change from a very different starting point. As in any market segmentation, you need to tailor your communication and engagement efforts accordingly to your particular audience.
It’s useful to map this onto the “diffusion of innovation” curve. You’ve got pioneers, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. As a company, the way you communicate to the pioneers and early adopters on this issue is different from the way you communicate to the early majority. Similar to consumer product marketing, different product attributes will likely be the selling points for those different groups.
Here’s an example I use in class: There’s a great ad for the Nissan Leaf from a few years ago. It showed a polar bear traveling south from the Arctic. It walks through city streets and eventually shows up in a residential suburban neighborhood. A guy comes out of his house carrying his briefcase on his way to work. He’s about to get into his Nissan Leaf and he turns around and suddenly there’s this giant polar bear towering over him. They look at each other and then they hug.
Q: Of course.
A: Right. Of course they do. Now, I’m someone who for years has been jumping up and down on my soapbox: “Stop with the polar bears. It’s not just about polar bears. OK? This is a people problem.”
So my first reaction was that this was a terrible ad. And then I stopped for a moment, thought about it, and realized — wait a second, this is a brilliant ad. Because if you think about it in that diffusion of innovation curve framework, Nissan was trying to sell a car that costs more and does less. The original Nissan Leaf only went about 70 miles on a charge, and it cost more than a comparable car. Who the hell is going to buy that? Why are they going to buy it? Nissan wasn’t going for the mass market; they were trying to get early adopters to buy one of these new innovative cars, because nobody had electric cars back then. So they used an ad targeting environmentalists and people who were already concerned about climate change (e.g., the “alarmed”). Living one’s environmental values is a core part of their identity — they were the ones who were most likely to be early adopters and get the market for electric vehicles started. That was brilliant.
But that’s not how you sell electric cars to the masses.
Q: How might you actually do that?
A: We’re in the process of figuring that out. But around 10 years ago, we looked at consumer perceptions of sustainable products and what was keeping people from buying them more often. There were perceptions that they didn’t perform as well as traditional products. And there was a perception that they cost more than regular traditional products. These were some of the barriers that prevented people from purchasing more sustainable goods.
This is in part where Tesla has had an impact in much of the same way that Apple did. Apple totally reinvented the image of what a PC was. It’s not just this ugly metal box and processor that sits on your desk. It’s now a status symbol, an art form of design in and of itself. And that revolutionized computers, because you couldn’t compete anymore with just another, cheaper version of a rectangular box.
In this same way, Tesla has made the category of electric cars and the electrified future beautiful, cool and higher-performance, albeit still at a higher price point. It has become a status symbol in many parts of the country, even though sales are still small relative to all the cars that are sold. But we’re in the middle of an underlying shift in the consumer perception of sustainable products.
We also learned that consumers want products that empower them. For example, back when Ford was doing some pioneering work in sustainability, they put solar panels on the roof of at least one of their factories in Michigan and were using that to tout their green credentials. Consumers didn’t care much about that — they cared more about having a fuel-efficient car. What consumers want is for companies to empower us to live out our values.
That insight right there, I think, is at the heart of everything that all companies working in the broader sustainability space should be taking heed of and thinking about how to do. How can your products and services empower your customers to live out their environmental and climate values?
Q: Do you see any crossover between that and the idea that companies should empower their employees to live out their climate change values?
A: I don’t study that directly. But what I have seen anecdotally is — absolutely. This is critical for companies that make commitments to become carbon neutral or to green their supply chains, et cetera. I mean, Walmart deciding that they were going to essentially make their entire value chain as sustainable as possible — that’s only going to happen if you have the buy-in of all your employees and contractors and vendors. You can force some of them to play along, but your employees are going to make a huge difference in terms of your ability to deliver on those goals, and my sense is that companies often don’t pay enough attention to that. Because this is about organizational change. And that’s not just simple information; it’s about how you empower your employees to help actually innovate, define those areas where you’re being needlessly wasteful, and, frankly, just to buy into the larger vision of the C-suite.
Q: To get employees — and customers, for that matter — on board, you need to be an effective leader. What does this look like to you, be it in government or in a company as a steward and advocate of climate action?
A: Well, that’s a giant subject. But I’ll say a couple quick things. You’ve got to have a vision, especially if it’s about transformative change. And you also have to have a strategy to actually implement your vision.
This is really important for companies, because, by and large, Americans are pretty skeptical, if not downright distrustful, of the motivations of many companies when it comes to these issues. There is a long, sordid history of “greenwashing.” So to quote an old friend of mine who is one of the leading communication professionals in Canada, James Hoggan: “There are three simple rules. One, do the right thing. Second, be seen doing the right thing. Third, don’t get the order of those two mixed up.” In other words, what you actually do is the most important form of communication. You’ve got to get that right before you start crowing to the world about how green and sustainable you are.
This brings me back to my last point that we have seen in our research about consumers. We see a large proportion of Americans as a whole, and especially those within the “alarmed” and “concerned” categories, who say that they are willing to reward or punish companies for their actions on climate change. In other words, boycotts or “buycotts” — preferring to buy something from a company that’s seen as doing good. There’s an enormous interest in doing that. We find that roughly half of Americans say that they would be willing to punish a company for its actions.
Now you can say, look, that’s not believable. It’s people sounding off on a survey. Fine, let’s cut it in half, from 50% down to 25%. In fact, let’s be super conservative and cut it in half again. Now we’re down to 12.5%. Let’s just keep being ultra, ultra conservative and cut it again in half to 6% and cut it again in half to 3%. So let’s just say that 3% percent of the country would actually reward or punish a company for their actions.
If 3% of the marketplace was actually punishing or rewarding a company, it would send massive shock waves through any sector. Profit margins are often smaller than this. When I talk to company executives I say, look, I am not in your shoes and I don’t dare for a second claim to understand the decisions that you make. But when we ask people why they don’t reward or punish companies, we ask about a whole bunch of barriers (“I don’t have the time,” “It’s too expensive,” “I don’t like the products,” “Someone in my house would make fun of me,” et cetera), and there’s one reason that people overwhelmingly say is why they don’t do it. One reason by far. Do you want to guess?
Q: Oh my gosh. I have no idea.
A: The one barrier that’s apparently preventing most people from rewarding or punishing companies by a long shot is simply: “I don’t know which companies to reward or punish.” That’s it. This isn’t convincing somebody that they need to give up their identity as a Republican to become a Democrat. That’s hard. This isn’t about changing anybody’s values. This isn’t even about persuading anybody. This is just simply about saying, “Hey, we’re a good company over here” or “Hey, that’s a bad company.” That’s it.
If I were in an executive’s shoes, that finding either makes me salivate or makes my knees knock a little. Because depending on where you are in your sector, you’re positioned either to take advantage of that or be punished by it.
As an exec, I would be afraid of two main actors. One is the environmental community, because, when it comes to pointing out bad corporate behavior, I think the environmental community has tremendous credibility with consumers. In other words, the naming, blaming and shaming of bad corporate actors.
But honestly, the group I would be most afraid of are my competitors, because they have a huge incentive to communicate to the same consumers I’m trying to reach about how their product is better than mine and how mine sucks. And they’ve got the resources to communicate and advertise at scale.
To go back to my friend Jim’s rule: You’ve got to first be doing the right thing. These days in particular, if you’re faking it, you’re going to get called out.