Taylor Swift will solve climate change.
That’s not true, but statistically, that line is 97% more likely to show up in your newsfeed than other climate content considering its mention of the pop singer. A similar disparity in Google searches during the Paris Climate Agreement revealed that most Americans were more concerned with Kim and Kanye’s lunch than the largest global agreement in history.
Does this mean we are terrible people, too vain and shallow to concern ourselves with one of the largest issues of our era? Hardly. We are, however, people with everyday stresses, rendering frightening issues like climate change almost too much to handle. Researchers suggest that if leaders hope to transition people away from superficial concerns, they "need, in future, to charm us to goodness” by presenting climate change in a way that is less threatening.
Renee Lertzman, a behavioral psychologist, and author of the book, Environmental Melancholia: Psychoanalytic Dimensions of Engagement, agrees, “People feel anxiety when informed of direct climate impacts. Alarming messages that trigger shame, blame, fear and anxiety can impede people's cognitive processing abilities critical to finding solutions.” If an option between melting ice caps and Taylor Swift are presented, we often opt for the softer of the two that doesn't challenge our preexisting beliefs – but our avoidance of frightening topics goes deeper than our interest in the mundane.
Our political allegiance often trumps our trivial preference of pop stars over climate realities. Alas, something similar is happening in both our favor of pop culture and our party loyalty. Comfort.
From skepticism over climate science to preferring celebrity gossip, our attempt is to maintain our lifestyles by choosing information that doesn’t bring our identity or status quo into question. Moreover, in the case of political alliances, we lean toward information that reaffirms our identity.
Breaking an individual free from these complacencies requires “skillful conversationalists,” according to Lertzman, who suggests that a good starting point in climate communicating is to “begin the conversation with an open mind, intent on listening,” adding the importance of acknowledging your audience's anxieties without an agenda of your own.
For people to choose climate over superficial distractions or their partisan dedication, they need to feel invited to the conversation – but who invites them is equally as important.
Giving “a nod to ‘creation care,’ an idea in Christianity that humans are responsible for this planet,” Ed Maibach, a member of ecoAmerica’s research leadership circle and a communications scientist at George Mason University, suggests that climate communications from faith leaders who are “respected by conservatives, such as Pope Francis,” is tremendously useful.
Clergy who speak about climate change “from the pulpit” have, in recent years, experienced a substantial uptick in popularity, as Pew Research found. Nearly a quarter of all respondents who claim to have visited a religious service in the past few months report hearing their clergy speak on “environmental issues.” But climate remains far from a leading topic among faith leaders.
Falling behind identity-affirming topics like religious liberty (40 percent) or homosexuality (39 percent), environmental issues (22 percent) came in second to last of “political issues” discussed by clergy, with only economic inequality (18 percent) receiving less attention. The report went on to note that religious leaders who shared ideas on religious liberty and homosexuality tended to come from conservative political stances, while climate change and economic inequality came from liberal-minded leaders and communities. This suggests that regardless of how many faith leaders are speaking about climate change, most are doing it less than effectively by aligning climate values with a democratic or liberal identity.
And yet, there is no doubt that faith leaders are uniquely positioned to break through the partisan divide and the complacency of superficial interests. According to ecoAmerica’s report, American Climate Values 2014 Supplement: Faith and Climate Highlights, 41 percent of respondents who consider religion to be the “most important” aspect of their life contend that they would trust their “religious leaders for guidance on solutions to climate change.” 31 percent of those that consider religion simply “important” to their lives concur.
In many ways, congregations are reliant on their faith leaders to guide their perspective on climate change in a way that doesn't threaten their identity. By demonstrating how climate values align with a person's faith values, a leader is making the transition feel more comfortable; a move less likely to encounter resistance. The trick, as many communication experts contend, is to demonstrate how climate values already align with a person's faith values, rather than making them feel as though they must adopt new values. The goal is to ensure the individual that their identity will remain intact when accepting the realities of climate change.
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.