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Are the effects of extreme weather changing how we're thinking about climate change?


This July and August were the hottest months ever recorded. Scientists say this summer's major heat waves would be virtually impossible had humans not heated up the planet by burning fossil fuels. Add to that this year's extreme floods and wildfires, also fueled by climate change, and it begs the question - are those extreme temperatures and disasters a wake-up call for humanity? Anthony Leiserowitz is founder and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, and I asked him if this marks a turning point for how people here in the U.S. perceive and think about climate change.

ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: So we've been tracking how Americans are responding for the past 15 years. And so I think it's actually part of a larger trend, in that we've seen that Americans are increasingly convinced that climate change is happening. In our most - latest national study, it was 74%. They're increasingly convinced it's human-caused. It was most recently at 61%. And they're growing increasingly worried. So about two-thirds of Americans say that they're now worried about climate change, and these particular kinds of extreme weather events, which are just hitting us over and over again like a two-by-four to the forehead, are starting to actually really come through. People are starting to wake up and really say, oh, my gosh, something's really going on here.

CHANG: And let me ask you - this wake-up call - I mean, does being personally affected by one of these disasters, whether it's extreme heat or a flood or a fire - how much does that personal experience change people's perception of climate change?

LEISEROWITZ: So I would say there's really two important components here. One is that personal experience or also, to be honest, is the vicarious experience, like the stories that we hear from our friends, our families and from the media. But that second piece is actually helping people interpret these events. Human beings don't just simply experience a heat wave and immediately, on their own, say, oh, this is climate change. So there - it's so important that all of us help people understand that, yes, in fact, climate change is making these events both more frequent and more severe.

CHANG: You put your finger on something, and that is the effects of climate change are still being felt unevenly around the world. Like, even as people in some parts of America may only now be seeing these disasters in their backyards, there are people in other places who've been dealing with these consequences for years, right? Like, I know you've been studying how people in the Arctic have been grappling with climate change for years and years.

LEISEROWITZ: Yes. So the science-fiction writer William Gibson famously said, the future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed. And people in the Arctic, even 20 years ago, were experiencing 2 to 4 times the rate of warming as the rest of the world. Unfortunately, now 20 years later, we're all starting to really experience these impacts globally. For many years, it was seen as what we call psychologically distant. People thought it was distant in time - like, maybe the impacts would happen in a generation, so maybe to my grandkids - or distant in space. This was about polar bears or maybe developing countries but not the United States, not my community, not my friends, family or me. That basic perception has begun to shift pretty dramatically as these events start to roll out across America. And people are beginning to really connect the dots and say, actually, this is happening right here, right now, to the people and places that I care about.

CHANG: And you're finding not only are people caring more about climate change - you're finding that a small subset of Americans are actually feeling pretty extreme anxiety about climate change, right? Like, how is that anxiety manifesting?

LEISEROWITZ: So yes, we've been starting to study what we call now climate anxiety. And we found that there's about 3% of Americans - so not that large proportionally, but that's still about 10 million people - who are basically suffering what we would call debilitating levels of climate anxiety, where it's affecting their daily lives, you know? They're so depressed that they can't, you know, even think about the future. It's interfering with the daily activities.

But beyond that, there's a larger set of maybe 8% of Americans who are at least experiencing one of the features of this or the attributes of this. And what we find, really interestingly, is that those people are far more likely to be taking action to address climate change. They're more likely to be making changes in their own lives to change their energy use or to put solar panels on their roof or to buy an electric vehicle or to change their diet. They're far more likely to actually be getting involved with organizations demanding change on climate change, and they're also more likely to vote. So they're taking action both personally and as part of our collective society to demand the system level changes that, of course, are crucial.

CHANG: Well, those actions sound reassuring, but is there also the possibility that some people will become so worried or so anxious about climate change that it leads them to think there's nothing they can do or that it's just too late, and they respond with just straight-up apathy or just resignation?

LEISEROWITZ: So we've been tracking that for years and years now. And I will say the good news is that there's actually a very small proportion of Americans who are what we call fatalist - that they've reached the point of saying that there's no point. We can't change this. We can't make any difference. So it's just to say that I think most people are actually asking a very different question, and that is, what can I do? And what can we, collectively, do to actually solve this problem?

CHANG: Well, among all the solutions that we've - already have on hand to help humanity mitigate or adapt to climate change, is there one solution that stands out for you - besides just reducing emissions, of course?

LEISEROWITZ: Yeah, reducing emissions is going to be critical. The other - because, again, we've kind of wasted a few decades - is that we need to be much more serious about preparing ourselves for impacts because, unfortunately, they're going to get worse before they get better.

The last thing, though, I'll just emphasize is that all of us - every single person has a superpower to address this issue, and that is to talk about it. As human beings, we are social animals. We constantly are paying attention to what other people around us do and say. And what we know is that you do not get change in our own lives or in collective social lives unless we talk about the problems that are really important to us. It doesn't matter whether you're a kid, you're a grandmother, whatever - you can make a difference, if only by talking about it. And that's just the first step to all the other things that you can do.

CHANG: Talking about it makes it more real. Anthony Leiserowitz is founder and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and a senior research scientist at the Yale School of the Environment. Thank you so much.

LEISEROWITZ: Thank you, Ailsa. It was great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.