Photo Courtesy of Architectural League NY
We have long followed the work of Anthony Leiserowitz, Executive Director of the Yale Center for Climate Change Communication (YCCC), and used the Center’s research to inform our approach to construction education in our GPRO courses. I was excited to hear Mr. Leiserowitz speak last night at Climate Change in the American Mind, the kick-off event for the Architectural League NY’s Five Thousand Pound Life a combination of initiatives about reducing America’s per capita carbon emissions to 5,000 pounds per year.
Rosalie Genevro, Executive Director of the Architectural League, opened the event by saying how exasperated she was by the lack of popular reaction to the release of the recent IPCC Report, which further confirmed that human activities are the main cause of climate change and endorsed a trillion-ton carbon budget for all of humanity. She gently accused architects of being “enablers” of excessive growth and unlimited development. She called for the design community to use the power of their imaginations to help them be stewards of the environment, and to draw upon the variety of their perspectives to envision how we might change our current trajectory.
If you attended Urban Green’s 2012 conference, Cooling on Climate Change. You may remember Lisa Fernandez’s theory of the “Six Americas.” This research project divided the American population into six categories, from the alarmed and concerned through the cautious and disengaged to the doubtful and dismissive. It turns out that the factor that most determines how much someone will agree with the statement “I believe that climate change is real, that human activity caused it and that there are workable solutions” is where you fall on the continuum between egalitarianism to individualism. Those who believe that we should all work together are much more likely to agree that we can solve huge global issues like climate change, and those who run towards self-reliance dismiss the issue because it clearly can’t be solved by individuals alone.
Anthony Leiserowitz and the YCCC have been researching how Americans understand and misunderstand causes, solutions and risks related to global warming. He presented his most recent data that showed that naysayers are dramatically more prevalent than they were 10 years ago. Alternatively, since many Americans were affected by environmental disasters in 2012 (think Sandy, Snowmageddon, and Snowpocalypse and that’s just the East Coast), the number of people who are interested in finding solutions to climate change are starting to trend upward.
I am cheered by his optimism. He compares Americans’ current attitudes about global warming with attitudes in the 1970s towards smoking. It took changes in culture, behavior and regulations to create this 180-degree turnaround. When was the last time you saw someone smoke inside a building?
Most Americans don’t know how bad the situation really is, and global warming seems so far away, both geographically (North Pole) and chronologically (50 years from now).The invisibility and intangibility of the problem makes it particularly hard to get people engaged. Adding to the problem is that the small percentage of naysayers have seized far more media attention.
But the good news is that people who are not yet engaged are far more likely to take action if asked by a person they like and respect. Talking to friends, neighbors and family members about shared values is extremely effective. In fact, Mr. Leiserowitz said that one of their next projects is to promote conversation starters that will help to draw out common values among people with different perspectives. He also emphasized that in order to be most effective, the discussion needs to move from a global perspective to a community one.
One of the most interesting findings from last night is that there is not so much daylight between the most committed environmentalist and the most individualist tea partier. In fact, these two groups collaborated in Georgia to form the Green Tea Coalition whose mission to battle monopolies on electric generation and allow individual solar panel installations is gaining traction.
There was a not-so-gentle indictment of the environmental community for doing a far better job of explaining the coming dystopia than showing a clear achievable path. I would argue that Urban Green is well on the way to path-making with our recent 90 by 50 Report and the pragmatic recommendations of the Building Resilency Task Force.
The takeaway is that while the naysaying American public is loud and have so far dominated the public square, we environmentalists have immense potential to organize and spread the word. For much too long, we have formed a circle and have been only speaking to each other. Now is the time for each of us to widen the circle and bring in everyone who will help us achieve our goals of achieving energy independence, creating good jobs and positioning us well for the low carbon economy of the future.