mixed greens

No substitute for experience

Posted 10/11/23

I’d venture to guess that most of us have some friends or even family members who live in places that have experienced blistering heat, torrential rains or prolonged droughts recently—but …

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mixed greens

No substitute for experience


I’d venture to guess that most of us have some friends or even family members who live in places that have experienced blistering heat, torrential rains or prolonged droughts recently—but who steadfastly refuse to admit that climate change might have anything to do with it. 

Asked how they’re coping during a record-breaking heat wave, they insist that “it always gets hot here.” They’ll say anything to stave off the climate conversation, and I usually let it go, because experience has taught me that I’m unlikely to be able to change their minds.

The summer of 2023, the hottest on record in the Northern Hemisphere, also brought unprecedented wildfires and flooding, and might have accomplished what explanations and statistics can’t achieve. In new national polling from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, based at the University of Chicago and published last month, nearly nine out of 10 Americans (87 percent) said they have personally experienced at least one extreme weather event in the past five years. 

That’s up from 79 percent just this past April. About six in 10 said that they had been affected by smoke from the Canadian wildfires that blanketed large swaths of the U.S. 

Of those reporting experiences of drought, extreme heat, extreme storms, wildfires or flooding, about 75 percent said they believe climate change is at least partly to blame. 

“In total,” according to the AP-NORC Center report, “64 percent of U.S. adults say both that they’ve recently experienced extreme weather and that they believe it was caused at least partially by climate change, up from 54 percent in April. And about 65 percent say climate change will have or already has had a major impact in their lifetime.”

In an interesting corollary to the AP-NORC survey, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication published a new Climate Note on August 3, examining the levels of anxiety that Americans are experiencing related to climate change.  Invoking the numerous studies that have linked concerns about global warming to serious psychological distress, the Yale program delved into its detailed December 2022 national survey to ask: is distress prompting climate worriers to take positive action? 

It found that one in 10 Americans reported feeling at least one feature of climate distress—such as feelings of helplessness, depression, grief or anxiety—and that those who reported these indicators of anxiety were much more likely to have taken some form of action to address the issue.  

Actions ranged from signing a petition or donating to an environmental group to volunteering their time or contacting a public official. They were also much more likely to discuss climate change with family members and friends.  

I came away with new questions about experience, perception and denialism.  When it comes to climate change, are most of us just an extreme version of experiential learners, unable to take the effects seriously until we have experienced them hands-on?  

Are some of our deniers really just scared, whistling past the graveyard of climate information and hoping it goes away? 

How do we cultivate a healthy proactive concern without tipping the balance into paralysis and despair? 

If you or someone in your life is experiencing an unhealthy level of anxiety about climate change, you might want to visit the Climate Mental Health Network, which offers insight and resources including materials for educators, children and parents (www.climatementalhealth.net/). And for effective ways to discuss climate change, you might want to check out Covering Climate Now (coveringclimatenow.org/), a resource dedicated to helping journalists deliver better reporting on climate issues. The organization was cofounded in 2019 by Mark Hertsgaard, a well-known climate journalist and author, and Kyle Pope, who served as editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review from 2016 until this month, when he stepped down to give CCNow his full attention. 

While the site was designed specifically to help climate journalists explain key concepts and avoid messages of doom, I think all of us who care about climate change will find fresh perspectives and accessible information to help inspire action, not paralyzing fear.

mixed greens, climate change


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