Changing our minds about climate change: The public awareness of a planet in transition

Photo by Sanandros/CC BY 2.0


Article by Hannah Klaus


Climate change is too often framed as a looming international issue to which nearly everyone is contributing, but that very few can help solve Common perceptions are that one person cannot make a difference or that climate change is too large of an issue for one single person to take responsibility and act on it. Given these perceptions, it is easy for people to become discouraged from actively engaging in thoughts and conversation about climate change. According to a joint report from Yale and George Mason University, two out of three Americans are moderately or very interested in climate change. At the same time, however, only one out of five Americans hears others talk about climate change at least once a month and fewer than half of Americans hear climate change discussed in the media once a month or more (5).

Are our brains wired to be apathetic about climate change or can be blame social phenomena for encouraging us to look the other way? One theory combines both of these possibilities: the spiral of silence theory was formulated by Noelle-Neumann in 1974 asserts than an individual’s willingness to express their opinion is dependent on how they perceived the public opinion (3).This theory applies to climate change because if few or no people are speaking about this topic, the majority will not feel comfortable bringing it up. On the contrary, if many people are discussing climate change, then more people will be comfortable with expressing their opinions on this topic (1).

The media coverage of climate change has fluctuated in the past few decades, which limits people’s access to information about climate change. A study from the University of Colorado shows that, since the turn of the century, climate change had its “fifteen minutes of fame” in 2009, with over 1000 climate change related newspaper articles being published in North America (2).  According to a report from Media Matters, which analyzed the coverage of climate change on ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX, found that, in total, these news outlets only devoted about two and a half hours to climate change coverage in 2015. The report discovered that Fox news was the only media outlet to increase its coverage of climate change last year, although much of this added coverage criticized mitigation efforts.

This is problematic because an underinformed or even apathetic public has many negative consequences for action on climate change. Lacking information about the environmental effects of individual action, people cannot make choices to reduce their impact. Additionally, an underinformed public may not support leaders or policies that can effectively address climate change.

Efforts to initiate and encourage conversation around climate change must be strategic and intentional. A report published in the journal Perspectives in Psychological Science proposes best practices for improving public engagement with climate change. Van Der Linden et al. recommend that evidence for climate change be presented in a more personal manner, such as through real-life examples, than through a broader analysis. It also recommends creating incentives and rewards for individual action and leadership on climate change. Finally, the report suggests that there should be a greater focus on the short term, rather than long-term consequences of climate change (4).



  1.  Deaton, Jeremy. “Nexus Media News Blog Eyebrow SIX CHARTS SHOW WHY NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE.” Popular Science. September 30, 2016. Accessed October 26, 2016.


  1. Nacu-Schmidt, A., Andrews, K., Boykoff, M., Daly, M., Gifford, L., Luedecke, G., and McAllister, L. (2016). World Newspaper Coverage of Climate Change or Global Warming, 2004-2016. Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado, Web.


  1.  Scheufele, Dietram A., and Patricia Moy. “Share Download Full-text PDF Twenty-five Years of the Spiral of Silence: A Conceptual Review and Empirical Outlook.” International Journal of Public Opinion Research 12, no. 1 (March 2000). Accessed October 26, 2016.


  1. Van Der Linden, Sander, Eward Maibach, and Anthony Leiserowitz. “Improving Public Engagement With Climate Change.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 10, no. 6 (November 2015): 758-63. Accessed October 26, 2016.

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