New Climate Change Study: Seeing Is More Important Than Believing

Glacier National Park            Photo: Tim Rains, National Park Service

By Alexandra Patel and Monica Medina

Climate change as a “lens” is not always the best way to frame climate impacts for frontline communities in order to spur them to act in the near term.  According to a new study by Columbia University anthropologist Ben Orlove, individuals interviewed who have personally experienced the consequences of global warming – such as glaciers melting or ski seasons shortening — often viewed them through a local community-based experience lens, rather than a climate change one.

  • In some Washington communities where the economy is dependent on skiing and glacier viewing tourism, receding glaciers and unpredictable snowfall are threatening these industries and local residents in response are adapting to these climate-caused changes.
  • They are doing so, not from a climate perspective, but from one centered around the community and its residents.

Why This Matters: Climate change, while very straight-forward in its facts and science, can be perceived through different perspectives depending on the person’s own experience. Understanding this is crucial to being able to engage with people and communities across the U.S., as well as across political spectrums in the effort to build the political will to address climate change.  The use of climate change as the frame for building political will to act may be less effective than using the community impacts frame.  Where people see the impacts of climate change right before their eyes and experience the economic ramifications directly, they have begun to act.  This is helpful in thinking about how to persuade society to make the changes needed to adapt to climate change.

The Study: In the communities around the world that were surveyed during the study, where people were interviewed one-on-one,the authors found that most residents described the impacts of climate change through a community frame, “In all three communities, people perceive climate change impacts, along with socio-economic impacts, and they act on these impacts, but they do not link the two with predictions based on the climate change frame,” the authors said.

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