Culture of climate protection needed

Behavior will change when social norms change

Beacon Hill made a loud statement with the Global Warming Solutions Act. The 2008 law mandating an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions put Massachusetts on the leading edge of US climate policy. Sustained legislative leadership can carry the state toward this goal, but ultimately, effort from a broad majority of residents will be needed to achieve the deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions the act requires by the year 2050. To get residents engaged, Massachusetts must focus on building a culture of climate protection.

A “culture” around climate protection is needed for several reasons. First, research from the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale University demonstrates that when challenges involve long range risk to society, people filter how dangerous the issue really is through their core beliefs, rather than the scientific consensus. Along these lines, a recent MassINC poll shows our longstanding traditions of independence may be shading our view of the global warming problem.

Most Bay State residents know the science – 59 percent see global warming as real and at least partially the result of human activity. But the scientific consensus that global warming presents a danger to the planet has not quite gotten through. Only a third of residents think global warming is happening, caused by human activities, and a very serious problem for Massachusetts if left unaddressed.

This disconnect between recognizing the problem and acknowledging its consequences is evidence that cultural values are impacting the way Massachusetts residents interpret the scientific consensus. As the Yale research suggests, people may be prone to discount the danger because the solutions to global warming are often framed as requiring “more government intrusion” into our lives.

Getting residents to see global warming as a real threat is critical because concern is the strongest predictor of resident engagement on the issue. People who believe global warming will be “very serious” as opposed to just “somewhat serious” are much more likely to support the actions needed to reach the state’s 80 percent goal. Three out of four residents who think global warming is real and very serious say the state should be doing “a lot” to address it, compared with only 38 percent who see the problem as real, but less than very serious.

Encouraging residents to act as individuals is an altogether different challenge. Believing that global warming is real and serious is not enough to motivate residents to reduce their carbon footprints. Our survey results show concerned residents are no more likely to take public transportation, get free home energy audits, or reduce their energy consumption.

This is another compelling reason why Massachusetts must work to build a culture of climate protection. A growing body of research suggests individual environmental behavior is driven largely by social norms. For example, recent analysis by Navigant Consulting shows households that receive an electricity bill comparing their usage to their neighbors conserve more energy than customers who get the traditional statement. People must first see themselves as part of an engaged community before they will act. According to our poll, just 4 percent of residents believe other residents are currently doing “a lot” to address global warming.

To reach the 80 percent goal, Massachusetts must build a culture of climate protection, a dynamic akin to the ingrained love for the Red Sox passed down from one generation to the next. While this single survey can’t tell us how to go about building the culture, it can offer some important direction.

First, lack of concern is greatest among the state’s wealthy and white residents. One-third of survey respondents earning more than $100,000 annually say global warming will be a very serious problem for Massachusetts if left unaddressed, compared to half with annual income between $50,000 and $100,000. Sixty-nine percent of Latinos and 56 percent of African-Americans say it will be a very serious problem for Massachusetts, versus just 40 percent of white residents.

Meet the Author

Ben Forman

Research Director, MassINC

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

Second, the disconnect between awareness and action is greatest among the young. Residents between the ages of 18 and 29 are most likely to think global warming is real and serious, but they are by far the least likely to say they take steps very frequently to reduce their energy use.

As we have seen time and again throughout the world, students and young professionals are important generators of culture, particularly in an age with so many new technologies that have the power to dramatically reshape society.  The power is theirs for the taking, but young people will have to do more than attend Earth Day concerts in order to preserve the planet they and their children will inherit.

Ben Forman is the research director at MassINC.