Confronting climate change is hard work. A first step is to be clear about the scientific evidence: Climate change is real and happening now. But the next step — figuring out how to persuade people that we can do something to limit the damage — is not easy either.
Bay Area residents have an opportunity to do something positive on climate change through the Clean and Healthy Bay measure (Measure AA on the June 7 ballot), an important step forward on regional climate action. If passed, the measure will add $12 a year to the annual property tax in nine counties, providing funding for coastal flood protection by revitalizing bay wetlands, at half the cost of levees. The initiative is also attracting national attention as a possible model for regional adaptation to climate change. To succeed, though, the measure’s backers should listen to Will Rogers’ advice: “Peoples’ minds are changed through observation and not through argument.”
Dr. Susanne Moser’s recent work in Marin County is a perfect example. She used a view finder on a public path to illustrate the impacts of different rate of sea level change on familiar scenes in Marin County. She asked people to look at the finder to see the current scene and the impacts of 1 foot and 3 feet of sea level rise. This small step had a big impact on citizens’ level of concern, willingness to act and preferences for next steps in adapting to climate change.
Dr. Moser’s work embodies three themes that the National Academy of Sciences highlighted for younger audiences: Focus on the impacts of climate change in areas that people have an emotional connection to; focus on a time frame of the next 50 years; and emphasize action steps or “things that people can do.”
These lessons aren’t only effective with younger audiences. They are the keys to success with another important demographic: those 55 and older.
The 55 and older group votes at a higher rate than other age groups and could be a key to Measure AA’s success. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, Californians age 55 and older make up 31 percent of the state’s adult population, but constitute 48 percent of likely voters. Young adults (18 to 34) make up 32 percent of the population, but only 17 percent of likely voters.
Older adults also care about climate issues as much as other age groups. For example, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication reported that 45 percent of the Baby Boomers are alarmed or concerned about climate change, compared to 35 percent of Millennials. The Pew Research Center reported a similar pattern.
So far, though, climate scientists and climate communicators, including those in the Bay Area, have overlooked those over 35. For example, the Department of State’s most recent U.S. Climate Action Report, integrating efforts across 13 federal agencies, highlighted K-12 and college education efforts, mentioning adult outreach efforts under the general category of “informal education” at zoos, museums and other venues with no mention of our country’s older adults. Private philanthropists are also focused on the younger demographic. Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action, for example, is now targeting college-aged voters, although their own blog recently acknowledged that “these young voters don’t always make it to the polls.”
Climate scientists and communicators still have time to effectively mobilize support for the Clean and Healthy Bay measure. A good first step is to connect people and place: make sure that when people vote on Measure AA they are picturing the places of the Bay that matter the most to them. The second step is to link the ballot measure’s approaches — for example, restoring wetlands — to a more positive outcome of climate adaptation. We know there will be sea level rise, but there are steps we can take now to adapt, reducing its impact. Finally, the backers of Measure AA need to target all ages, including both Millenials and Boomers in their efforts.
If Will Rogers were leading the charge, he might start the conversation this way: “Picture this: A clean and healthy Bay.”
Michael A. Smyer is a professor of psychology at Bucknell University and a Fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He is founder of Graying Green: Climate Action for an Aging World.