How Faith Leaders Can Help Americans Collectively Visualize Climate Change

Try to envision climate change. What does it look like and how does it make you feel? If you’re like most Americans, climate change is still an abstraction, something happening in “other places, to other people, at some point in the distant future.” Princeton University social psychologist Sander van der Linden contends that climate change remains “a statistical phenomenon” for Americans, presenting “a unique challenge for the human brain. So-called affective cues—fast and associative judgments—are formed through everyday experiences.”

While climate change for most Americans still feels like an ‘impersonal risk,’ its impacts (realized or not) alter the way we think about climate change. A new report from the World Bank found that impacts such as water scarcity conjure greater concern from Americans than climate change (often the cause of drought). Researchers suggest that “If you've been having trouble getting your uncle or former college roommate to understand how climate change would affect them, you might find water availability to resonate more than atmospheric carbon or starving polar bears.” ecoAmerica’s 2014 report, Beyond Storms and Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change, similarly found that an “individual's understanding of climate change is thought to increase when they learn about potential specific local climate impacts.” Humans need to feel or see climate impacts, but sometimes it’s about connecting the dots between cause and effect.

We learn best when abstract information is elucidated by real-world experiences.

For those living in regions not impacted by climate change in a recognizable way, the “emotional and cognitive alarms” are deactivated, but there is another way to convey the urgency surrounding climate change. Linden's report found that in-lieu of visual or physical impacts “we often learn about risks” socially. People of faith, in particular, are influenced by peers and leaders and when climate change is presented in terms of a social concern such as drought or floods, Americans are more likely to take action.

The collective approach to climate communicating is effective and Linden discovered that a social influence doesn’t simply mean an individual's immediate community. Those influenced by their peers and leaders are also persuaded by information that speaks to a larger group and that draws the issue closer to a moral discussion. In the case of faith communities this may extend to include ‘the least of these’ or ‘creation,’ both compelling motivators according to ecoAmerica's report, Let’s Talk Climate. Linden also found that the “moral components of climate change, the result of human decision-making,” positions climate change fundamentally as a concern for most Americans, and one that speaks particularly to people of faith, as uncovered by the Let’s Talk Climate surveys and research.

But a person’s sense of community doesn’t necessarily stop at the church, mosque, synagogue or temple walls. Following a similar line of thought, Americans demonstrate a high level of worry when their current behavior is framed in the context of how it will “impact the quality of life of our children and grandchildren,” according to Linden. ecoAmerica's report, Let’s Talk Climate, substantiates this finding with research that indicates a strong connection between climate action and faith-based morals when they are framed in the context of future generations.

Implementing the collective in communication strategies is useful in persuading climate opinions, and it also translates to an increase in climate-oriented donations. Organizations that advocate and work toward climate solutions rely heavily on gifts, and in most cases, these pledges come from individuals. A report from the University of San Diego found that when participants were asked to “think about climate change in collective terms,” contributions toward climate advocacy communities “increased by fifty percent.”

These findings are, however, dependent on an individual's political affiliation. When conservative climate skeptics are presented with climate change in a way that pressures personal or even collective change, it can have the opposite effect, particularly when the economy is doing well. A report from Duke University contends that conservatives “have very little incentive to change their position on the issue,” especially when the issue is polarized in the media or from leaders within their own community. The report concluded that the “more polarized” the issue, “[conservatives] feel they need to dig in more and more” on their group stance. A unrelated report from Purdue University uncovered a similar finding that highlights how politically conservative individuals “may be motivated to manipulate their informational landscape in a manner that fulfills the need to maintain and justify the societal status quo.”

If you have a strong psychological need to keep things as they are, you’re likely to reject information that, if true, strongly implies the need for major change.

Both studies indicate that facts simply are not enough to motivate climate action, rather an individual's social surroundings are a better influencer, particularly when positive climate solutions are presented from a community or faith leader. There is, however, a way around the polarized climate discussion. Researchers at The University of California, San Diego found that conservatives do respond quite well to individual attention. Jack Zhou, a doctoral student in environmental politics at Duke shared that, “personal communication is really valuable in getting people to change their minds.”

Navigating the discussion of climate change for faith leaders is a primary concern, and while individual attention is effective, it isn’t feasible to suggest that leaders have personal climate talks with every member of their congregation. That is why language is perhaps the most effective tool for faith leaders to engage people of faith on climate. The words that faith leaders use are important and the words they avoid using are equally crucial in removing the stigma surrounding climate change in conservative circles.

A recently released Gallup poll uncovered that terms such as ‘environmentalists’ not only don't work but may have an opposite effect if used. “In 2000, 47% of Americans identified as environmentalists, which in turn was down from 63% in 1995.” Gallup poll authors attribute this decline to how the label has been ‘politicized as an issue, especially in terms of the debate over climate change and how to address it.” The term has fallen dramatically since documented observations first recorded that 78% of Americans identified as environmentalists in 1991, and surveys suggest it will only continue to plummet.

Learn more about what phrases, words, and terms resonate with people faith at Let’s Talk Climate, a comprehensive report on effective climate communicating.

Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside. Click here to email Ryan.

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