What is the Tipping Point to Spur Climate Activism?

New Research Suggests we Have More Work to do.

Recently the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) reported that only 13% of American adults have taken a strong activist role against global warming. Why do so few concerned and alarmed Americans actually take a stand, and second, what would it take to compel them to demand action from their elected officials?

Photo by Glenn Fay

In order to shed some light on these questions I recently conducted a survey on a small subset of all Americans, who happen to be science educators and members of the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA). The ‘alarmed’ and ‘concerned’ educators in the sample indicated a lack of the following: know-how about pursuing activism, time, information, political instincts, and trust in politicians and activist organizations. You can read about the research and responses to the first question in my previous article here.

The respondents who identified themselves as alarmed and concerned (about 96% of the sample) were asked, “What events or information would compel you to contact your elected leaders today to demand immediate climate action to stop carbon dioxide pollution?

A Template

About 27% of the respondents suggested that a template or outline, to assist them in writing a letter, would compel them to act. One educator said, Sometimes it’s helpful when someone writes a letter that can then be quickly copied and adapted to share. I tend not to follow through because I have so much to say and have a hard time keeping it focused.” Another suggested, “I used to work for the National Audubon Society and they did great emails where all you had to do was click and a form letter/email would pop up and you could send it in the matter of minutes after filling out some info.” Clearly this kind of easy access would streamline the process of public engagement for usually very busy science educators.

Contact Information

Sixteen percent felt they needed information on who to contact, and where to go in their state and in the Capitol in Washington, DC. Some experienced activists may take it for granted that it is easy as going to Senate.gov or the U.S. House website, or simply googling state reps, but for busy people with jobs, families, and community responsibilities, this can be a few extra steps that get put off and slip by the wayside.

Tipping Point Pie Graph by Glenn Fay

A National Movement

Eleven percent of the respondents wished for a movement with a platform or a clear plan to stand behind. Suggestions included, “A political action committee that reaches out effectively,” and, “A national movement that I could get behind.” Others wanted “Local and state grassroots organizing with networking.” One said, “Start with students and teachers and have teachers start contacting Congress. Send out a premise email people can fill in their information and it sends an email to the Congress.”

More Evidence

Another 11% revealed that they were close to a tipping point and it “Wouldn’t take much,” to get them to act. Some noted specifically, “Disappearing glaciers,” and, “Rising sea levels” would surely tip them over the edge of their current inertia.

Feeling Empowered

Eight percent of the respondents seemed to have given up hope and wanted to feel empowered instead of irrelevant. For example, one educator wished to “See evidence that their actions would make a difference,” and, another hoped that their leaders, perhaps “newly-elected ones, if need be, can and will do something.” Another said, “While it might be about legislation, legally, R&D is required to find low-cost carbon-neutral solutions. Thus, it’s science and business related. If we pass a law to tell people to stop driving 2 days per week, who is exempt AND how is it enforced & tracked?”

Coherent Conversation

A few respondents suggested that it would tip the scales for them if they knew what is being done, knew where to find reliable climate change information, and had opportunities to educate their leadership. One noted, “If I could speak to them myself and work on those policies on a broader scale it would make a difference. It isn’t realistic of course, but I believe any change will come from the bottom up rather than regulations, which tend to sound great but will yield little impact in reality. I have a degree in environmental science and continue to be astounded by the misunderstandings that continue to circulate pervasively.” This compared with another respondent who said, “It’s not a lack of information. It’s a lack of listening and conversation between those who are in ‘power’ and those who elect them. We need to educate the ones who vote and make changes there.”

Not Sure

The remainder of the respondents, approximately one-quarter of the sample, indicated that they didn’t know what would compel them to act.

Summary

These responses indicate that there are some science-educated people out there who are close to acting and they just need a convenient means to act. And it also suggests that a lot of good people are busy and not always comfortable with political action, framing activist messages, or appreciate the power that their voices and actions can have to influence others and create change.

Many of the educators believe templates and information would kickstart them into action. Political action groups are already available in plain sight. The respondents want to see realistic, common-sense platforms that are not extreme or destructive. Their faith in democracy and public activism needs to be restored. And they need to engage with each other, with politicians, students and families.

As a former science educator I make an assumption that NSTA members are well-informed about current events such as climate change, that they are aware of activist organizations, and know how to quickly find good science and contact information.

If this survey data has some validity, limited as it is, then activists have some work to do to make it easier for hard-working professionals to hone their thinking, take action, restore trust, and do a better job of educating the educated.

Hopefully climate change activist organizations are paying attention to these perspectives, and better yet, fine-tuning this research to create the conditions for more activism on climate change.

Author of Vermont’s Ebenezer Allen: Patriot, Commando and Emancipator by Arcadia/The History Press (July 2021), Photographer. EdD, UVM.

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