New Research on the Spiral of Silence: A Majority of Americans are Interested in Global Warming but They Don’t Hear or Talk About it

A couple of weeks ago the NBC Evening News played on TV as I prepared dinner. A reporter stood on a patch of snow in Alaska complaining about the melting ice and record 90-degree temperatures in Anchorage. “Hooray! Finally an in-depth segment on climate change,” I said aloud. But the segment quickly ended. The anchorwoman continued, “In other news, Stevie Wonder needs a kidney transplant,” blah blah blah.

Let’s think for a moment. Why doesn’t continued inaction on climate destabilization with it’s profound implications for superstorms, conflagrations, economics, famines, droughts, and wars for the next millennium on the same scale as celebrity health reports?

It’s not just our imaginations that the media doesn’t spend enough time or depth on global warming. According to Media Matters, the major news programs on the broadcast networks aired a combined total of only 142 minutes on climate change stories during the entire year of 2018.

Image from NASA

What’s more, surveys from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) and George Mason University show surprising data about the ‘spiral of silence’ around global warming. Although two out of three Americans say they are interested in the topic, and six in ten say it is important to them personally, fewer than half say they hear it discussed on media more than once a month. Once a month.

The same data shows seven in ten say they rarely or never discuss global warming with friends or family. It is not even on our radar. The lack of media exposure may help to explain why Americans underestimate how many people think that global warming is happening and why they don’t talk about it much.

A new study by Matthew Goldberg, et al. for the YPCCC, published in June 2019 shows that perceived social consensus, the degree to which an individual believes others in their social group agree about an issue, has a strong influence on people’s own beliefs. For example, if I believe that my friends or family are climate change contrarians, I am likely to agree with them, rather than risk being an outsider and believing in the science. And this is especially true for conservatives.

The researchers found that when people have close friends or family who care about global warming, the ideological divide between liberals and conservatives is smaller.

Across the political spectrum, when people perceive their friends or families are concerned about global warming, they are more likely to worry, support public action, and be more in favor of regulating carbon and electric utilities.

Graphs used with permission from Goldberg, M. H., van der Linden, S., Leiserowitz, A., & Maibach, E. (2019). Perceived social consensus can reduce ideological biases on climate change. Environment and Behavior, doi: 10.1177/0013916519853302

Up to 74% of conservatives who perceive that global warming is important to their friends and families also accept that it is happening.

The study summarizes, “Overall, our findings show that perceived social consensus is an important factor in shaping global warming beliefs, worry, and policy support — especially for conservatives. Further, this research emphasizes the importance of encouraging people to talk about climate change with their friends and family.”1

What is the takeaway from this eye-opening research?

Number one, the media has a responsibility to frequently report the reality of not only the science of global warming, but to tell the stories of the impact on the economy, national security, and public health to name a few. Depth and follow-up links can make the reporting an educational experience for viewers, and point them toward action for change.

Second, Americans need to repeat the stories and continue the dialogue with friends, family and the community. Talking about and telling stories about the impact of global warming on the economy, national security, and public health actually influences some people more than science.

Goldberg, M. H., van der Linden, S., Leiserowitz, A., & Maibach, E. (2019). Perceived social consensus can reduce ideological biases on climate change. Environment and Behavior, doi: 10.1177/0013916519853302

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Author of Vermont’s Ebenezer Allen: Patriot, Commando and Emancipator by Arcadia/The History Press, University of Vermont EdD.

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