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Who Sees Climate Change?

The paradox of climate apathy in flood-prone America

by Karl Dudman

It’s a clear spring morning in McIntosh County, Georgia. The sky is bare and blue, and the day’s first sun spangles the shaggy edges of greying Spanish moss, which hangs in bearded clumps from the trees. It may be cloudless, but look down and you'll see, lapping at your doorstep: water. An awful lot of water, as though the humid air grew too heavy and sank to the ground, submerging your street, your schools, and your hospitals. This is called ‘sunny-day’ flooding, and it’s one of the quieter, more aesthetic ways that climate change is beginning to ruin lives of the communities on the southeast coast of the US who perch on a low geological seat. 

Situated along a coastal plain that stretches from New York to Miami, residents of McIntosh and its neighbouring counties have more reason than most to worry about the changing climate. Their low elevation has always put these communities at greater risk from rare tidal surges, but as the ocean rises, it won’t take a hurricane to get people bringing out the sandbags. ‘Sunny-day’ flooding means that even on a calm day, the natural alignment of seasonal high tides with the full moon can drag salty waves over a lawn you might otherwise have considered sunbathing on.

This tale of ‘global weirding’ marks southeast coast communities – alongside their wildfire-scorched Pacific counterparts – as some of America’s first communities redefining ‘normal’ to accommodate weather extremes that would previously have been filed under ‘freak’.  Marshy, flat, and nestled in the filagree deltas of multiple rivers, McIntosh stands to see 29% of residential land in Darien, its largest settlement, inundated by the end of the century. With a per-capita income trailing at one third of the national average, McIntosh’s plummeting house prices will exchange a mournful glance with the soaring cost of insurance as they cross each other, leaving the greatest burden, as ever, on those who can bear it least. You might expect this rising tide (and the grave projections that accompany it) to trigger a parallel groundswell of public concern, but this would not appear to be the case. 

Imagine a heat map of the world, but instead of heat (or energy usage, or the frequency of Dunkin’ Donuts in New England) this map shows populations at imminent risk from climate change. Low-lying Bangladesh radiates a feverous red; a rash of islands and archipelagos erupts across the Pacific. North America blushes its cheeks as California burns under scorching heat and the East starts to sink beneath the waves. Now imagine that the same map shows concern about climate change. You would expect little to change (existential dread makes a powerful motivator after all), and for many countries, you would be right. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) emerged in the 90s as a coalition of developing economies at risk from rising tides. Since its foundation, it has been a zealous driving force behind global action, delivering impassioned calls for greater ambition and demanding compensation for the losses they have incurred but not earned. As far as the US is concerned though, studies by Yale’s Climate Change Communication Programme – who actually took the trouble to make a ‘concern’ map – describe a very different image. Many coastal counties show a distinctly chilled-out custard colour in response to questions about concern or even belief in climate change. By contrast, the real centres of climate action consistently correlate with urban areas of high population density, regardless of how at-risk they are. In McIntosh, climate change remains an ocean-shaped elephant in the room; Yale’s 2016 survey reporting a very taciturn 25% of people in the county having ‘conversations about climate change at least occasionally’. That is 9% below the national average, in one of the nation’s most at-risk counties. So what is happening here? What makes climate change that much more visible to AOSIS countries than to McIntosh, Georgia?

On this idea of ‘visibility’, NYU psychologist Emily Balcetis explains that we each carry a culturally inherited toolbag of values and prejudices that help us separate ‘fact’ from ‘fiction’. They help us to organise the noise of information we encounter all around us, every day. It lends some context to McIntosh’s climate apathy then, that these troublesome tides are making landfall in a country with one of the most politicised national conversations on climate change in the world. Northeastern’s professor of public policy Matthew Nisbet even suggested climate change has ‘joined a short list of issues such as gun control or taxes that define what it means to be a Republican or Democrat’. Climate change is just one more battle in an ongoing national culture war, in which politics, morality and identity have blurrily arranged themselves on either side of a bitter ideological rift. Any discussion of climate change in historically Republican McIntosh – or many of its coastal neighbours – thus needs to be understood in the context of possible social baggage that can’t be wished away simply with more scientific education or a different president.

Researchers in the young yet unstoppable discipline of climate change communication are trying to draw attention to the importance of values and ideologies, and the fact that they are beholden to different forces than clouds and ocean currents. One leading organisations in the field – Oxford based charity Climate Outreach – conducts research rooted in social science to find out how these cultural barriers to climate change visibility work. “No one is waiting for that killer leaflet to convince them about climate change’, research director Adam Corner told me, “The science plays a fairly small part”. Yet it is almost always through a scientific frame that climate change is discussed. This is a problem, as it makes popular belief in climate change dependent on public relationships with science. Whilst public trust in expertise ebbs and flows, the waters in Georgia keep rising; the need for reliable, relatable messengers has never been more urgent.

Who can weather these political cross-currents and turn a flood into climate change?

So who is this trusted communicator? Any way you slice it, a flood is clearly a flood, but who can weather these political cross-currents and turn a flood into climate change? According to Corner, it’s all about how sea-level rise is going to affect people’s lives in the day-to-day, which means bringing climate change into all the mundane things that the day-to-day is made up of. In that sense, a doctor – the archetypal community figure – can be an advocate for climate action on the grounds of its implications for public health. Religious leaders can replace dry terms like ‘loss and damage’ or ‘land use’ with lessons about our responsibilities to ‘love thy [low-lying island] neighbour’ and be good custodians of God’s creations. In their work, Climate Outreach attempts to help people find the tools and tone to speak to their own communities, in their own voice, on matters that are meaningful to them. Ultimately, says Corner, the goal is to make climate change a constant and ambient part of daily language – not just a banner raised by politicians to trigger moral antagonism. 

Yale’s climate opinion surveys suggest a conversation on climate change in McIntosh still might not be described as “ambient” so much as abrasive. In some parts of the east coast however, these conversations are starting to be heard. A number of community-based organisations have emerged to take on the challenge of improving climate literacy and engaging people with the issues on their doorstep. There is, of course, nothing groundbreaking about the quest for ’public engagement’ (a holy grail that countless NGOs and charities live in search of), but groups like Enough Pie in neighbouring South Carolina, or Florida’s CLEO institute do things a little differently. Both have set up shop on the front line of developed-world climate vulnerability, and yet have no ambition beyond the needs and concerns of their local community. Neither shies away from raising the divisive issue of climate change, but by rooting educational and political activity in a local context, these campaigns have given a human face to a notoriously abstract concept. I spoke to CLEO’s founder and co-director, Caroline Lewis, about the process of gaining trust and building the movement: ‘We speak to teachers and students, elected officers, I mean, anybody who slows down long enough to say hello to us’. In a lesson straight from the Erin Brockovich school of public communication, Caroline described getting to know her community in every way possible: brazenly confronting authorities about climate silence in Miami; starting “circles of conversation in schools, in churches, in libraries”; even putting her money where her mouth is by living without a pay cheque for the first two years of activity (‘I’m telling you Karl, it nearly killed me’). In time, by ‘making the tent bigger’, these circles have grown, and CLEO has made remarkable progress cultivating a rich and inclusive conversation on a socially visible scale. By starting at the human level and exploring together how climate and society impact one another, organisations like CLEO cultivate a truly organic, robust, and democratic brand of political empowerment.

And this is the point. In a democracy, it matters what people think. It matters enough that in 2016, when national environmental concern was too weak to keep Donald Trump out of the White House, it cost the global climate change regime the compliance of its biggest player. Far from questioning the fact that the price of engagement is already being engaged, the response from the international community was rather to give up on them as a lost cause. Again, it comes down to ideology. An iron faith in the principles of globalism courses through the veins of the UNFCCC and every other international organism. To participate in the largest, most active conversation on climate change means showing a commitment to those principles. Is it right that for Americans won over by Trump’s ethic of nationalism over globalism, the hand of help is withdrawn, and the conversation falls silent? Are those communities any less at risk, or in need of engagement, than the AOSIS countries that are rewarded for their zeal with a vibrant discussion on locally appropriate measures? Following Trump’s commitment to leave the Paris Agreement, a peppy collection of American states, cities and businesses banded together to take up the nation’s climate ambition on the international stage, and cry in a proud and pixelated voice ‘#wearestillin’. This new globalist meta-territory is a Democratic utopia – cosmopolitan, liberal, and wealthy – and while unquestionably good news for the fight against climate change, it tears America up along the same old partisan fault lines, leaving everyone on the wrong side to weather the oncoming storm alone. 

The question we began with – why coastal Georgians don’t see climate change reflected in their flooded streets – is one about visibility. The answer, I suggest, is that effective climate change communication is not just making climate change visible to McIntosh, but also making McIntosh visible to the climate change community. Everyone sees the world through filters of ideology: Democrats and Republicans, nationalists and globalists. The challenge of pulling climate change out of that political mire is one for every layer of society. The CLEO institute has had remarkable success in the years since its foundation (Caroline curiously asked if I had noticed that Time Magazine featured her as one of ‘31 people changing the South’). This was because of their strong ethic of inclusivity, because they ‘invited people to the table who had not been invited’. Sustainable climate action therefore means understanding skepticism in the context of complicated cultural dynamics, it means telling human stories and opening conversations where there have been none before. 

Ultimately, distant social psychologists, commentators and communications theorists cannot be the ones to explain McIntosh’s relationship with climate change, let alone suggest ways to change it. What we can do is make the claim that there are stories untold, political agencies squandered and neglected, and fundamental lines of communication in a state of stagnation when due attention is not given to the dynamics of social knowledge and decision-making. It matters for communities like McIntosh county and its neighbours that a strong climate message comes across, not just for its long term ability to adapt to an uncertain future, but because it has the democratic right and power to choose a relationship with climate change on its own terms.

Illustrations by Ani Voruganti and Isabel Galwey

Karl Dudman read for an MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance at St. Edmund Hall, University of Oxford. Since graduating, he now works in climate change communication.

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