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By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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Worrying patterns in our climate personalities

Uploaded: Aug 25, 2019
When I wrote about climate personalities two weeks ago, I got an angry response from a reader who would prefer that this blog stick to the facts. “... an anecdotal poll ... ? Get real. You've been doing a fine job presenting mostly facts with your blog. I hope this is just an anomaly.”

I get it. Facts and science, even when they are concerning, can be reassuring. They represent reason and order, something objective, and can show a path forward. People and their emotions, on the other hand, can be messy, irrational, and ever-changing. And a small, unscientific poll about them? What possible good can come from that?

It’s a good question. I wrote that post because I worry that the “hard” science is the easy part of what lies ahead, and the policy-making, the coalition-building, and the creation of popular consensus is the tough part. So I think it is important for us to understand how our neighbors and fellow citizens are thinking about climate change, and to get a sense of what motivates them. A small informal poll is not science by any measure. But I wanted to explore this topic, and thought it might trigger some insights.

Caveats about the results. 71 readers responded to the poll, which was great (thank you!). But it is not big enough to represent our population. The sample is also quite biased, consisting only of people who read the blog (or who were shared it by someone who does) and who felt comfortable voting. So it is impossible to draw specific conclusions from the results. But they can lead us to ask questions and make observations.

If you are interested in doing your own analysis, the responses are available here. I have removed the comments and timestamps and re-sorted the results.

I also want to emphasize again that there are no wrong answers in this poll. Everyone who answered is paying attention and thinking about climate change, which is great. People understand things differently and process things differently. And, importantly, people’s views change. I’ve gone through several of these personalities myself over time. So please try to keep a lid on the judging. If you want people to change to your viewpoint, attacking them is not your best strategy.

I am going to show you a few charts, but here is one to start with, showing all 71 responses. 57 were from residents of the Bay Area, and 14 from non-residents. 32 responses were from persons aged 60+ and 38 from 0-59 (most of which were 30-59), with 3 people not specifying.

Responses to personality poll, see blog post for descriptions.

You can see that the majority (70%) of responses come from people who are concerned, impatient, and/or doing their part. No surprises there, given the bias of the poll. Even so, it’s reassuring to see that many people care and are taking some action.

But a pie chart doesn’t really reflect what I was getting at with this poll. I was trying to offer a range of “climate personalities”, and while I didn’t have a framework in mind when I wrote the descriptions, I realized later that there were two dimensions I was getting at:

(1) How serious do people consider climate change to be? This is more nuanced than whether people believe or don’t believe in science. There is a range here between “urgent, life-threatening, planet-threatening” and “worrying” and “it’s happening, but it’s happened before.''

(2) What initiative are people taking to reduce their own emissions? Believing and acting are less congruent than we might think. Again, there is a range here, from “telling everyone I know” to “doing what I can” to “not now” to “there is no point”.

So I reviewed the personality descriptions and assigned each a 0-5 score for “How serious is our situation?” and a 0-5 score for “How committed is the person to act?”. These scores are subjective and inexact -- you might score the personalities differently. As an example of my scoring, if a personality says “we are roasting ourselves into oblivion”, then I would say they view the situation as quite serious, while if they emphasize that this has happened before or that there is a lot of other bad news, then I would say they consider it less serious. Similarly, if a personality says they are doing everything they can and talking with their friends, then they are more committed to act than someone who is tuning out or who sees the problem as unaffected by their actions.

I charted the personalities on a graph, with the “seriousness” score on the x-axis, the “willingness to act” score on the y-axis, and the bubble size proportional to the number of voters with that personality. (It can help to review the personality descriptions while looking at this chart.)

What do you notice? These three things worry me.

(1) People tend to under-act relative to their beliefs. If you imagine a diagonal line along the points (1,1), (2,2), and so on, you can see that the circles generally appear below that line. While most people think our situation is at least somewhat serious (no score is below 2), the range of commitment to act goes from 0 to 5, with many below 2. The bubbles below 2 are smaller, but they add up to 27%.

These are the choices voters were presented with, and the scores are very subjective, so the results themselves are not very meaningful. But it’s interesting to think about this. There can be many reasons a person might under-act, including depression, fatalism, deflection (finger-pointing), or a sense that the problem is too big for their own actions to have an impact. But inaction is contagious. It can affect not only how quickly that person’s emissions are reduced, but also how quickly other people take action. As one commenter pointedly observed: “Seems to me that we should worry when the activists who claim a crisis start to act like its a crisis.” Are you likely to cut back on your own flying if you see everyone else flying? Similarly, action can be contagious, but if your actions are invisible to your neighbors, then that is less true. Driving an EV and riding a bike are visible actions. Cutting back on flying and beef are less visible unless you talk about them. And only the Impatients are willing to do that.

(2) Outright deniers are rare. If you live in this part of the world and you want us to quickly reduce our emissions, then you need to think beyond turning around climate-deniers. One commenter suggested I include “two other simple choices in the poll: deniers. And ‘I believe in science’.” I think that is missing the boat. Most people here acknowledge that global warming is happening and that, at least this time around, humans have a hand in it. But that does not mean they are taking action. Look at the Naturalists and the Depressed personalities, who think our situation is quite serious but are doing little. Others may be taking actions that are comfortable for them but not yet going beyond or encouraging others to step up. And some are stepping back and taking the long view, waiting for more things to line up. Do the people who are taking little action view themselves as deniers or skeptics about climate change? If not, then it is important to understand what is behind their inaction.

(3) There are too few A Brighter Futures. The long tradition of Silicon Valley, and I would say American innovation more generally, is one of optimism, invention, and building a better future. I think we need more of that attitude about climate change. Not only because the innovations can be impactful, but because the optimism and hope will help to rally people to move forward. Yes, we need climate change salesmen! I was disappointed to see so few of these personalities, in this area of all places, and am hoping that they exist and are just too busy to read this blog.

A fourth worry comes from looking at a separate set of graphs.

(4) Younger people are more depressed. Take a look at these two charts representing two different age groups. On top are the 32 responses for the 60+ age group, and below are the 36 responses for the 0-59 age group.

Responses from people aged 60+

Responses from people aged 0-59.

The way I read this, the younger people who responded are more likely to be on the fence and muted in their response (Voice of Reason, Concerned, Depressed). Compared to seniors, they are more likely to be quietly Doing My Part rather than advocating as an Impatient. They are less committed to action overall, more likely to be depressed, and few can envision A Brighter Future. Again, no conclusions can be drawn from this small, unscientific poll. But the difference in these two charts does remind me that we need to be cognizant of how our attitudes and actions are impacting the next generation. The Naturalists who confidently assert that we are doomed and dismiss action as an exercise in futility are all 60+. Are they sharing this with the young, even inadvertently? In response to a Naturalist-oriented remark, a commenter wrote “I pray you are not raising kids with such an attitude.” I can see that point.

So, what do I take away from this poll? I think we need to worry less about what people believe and more about what they are willing to do and to say that is constructive and forward-looking. We need to be optimistic and encouraging, and inspire others to take action and to be proud of and excited about the action they are taking. And this is especially important with younger people.

In terms of the specific personalities, I think if we had more A Better Futures, we would move faster. If you know some, encourage them! And lean into that part of your own personality. The Naturalists and Depresseds should consider better aligning their actions with their view of the gravity of the situation. Can the Impatients and Voices of Reason find common ground? The Impatients are in danger of being dismissed as “hysterical”. Their counterpart, the Voices of Reason, are in danger of being co-opted by the fossil fuel companies whose playbook is to raise doubt and slow things down. We can all examine our response to climate change and think about how we can adapt it to best accomplish our goals.

Okay, that is the end of amateur hour. I will keep my eyes out for more professional research along these lines. In the meantime, I look forward to your thoughts...

Notes and References

1. In case you are wondering, slicing the results by background/career (e.g., science vs everything else) doesn’t seem to have much impact. Slicing by whether you were a Bay Area resident had some -- Bay Area responders tended to be a little older and a little more activist -- but the numbers of non-residents are relatively small so I omitted that analysis. I did look at the age breakdown shown above for residents only, and it looked quite similar to the breakdown for the whole group.

Current Climate Data (July 2019)

Global impacts (July was the warmest month on record), US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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Posted by eileen, a resident of another community,
on Aug 25, 2019 at 10:18 am

I dare say that if we had a federal government that believed in climate change, that was committed to finding solutions, and showed confidence that we can succeed, we all might be "better future" types. "We are all in this together and here's what we can do" sort of thing. Make it the patriotic thing to do rather than something that is too hard, too time consuming, and maybe too expensive. Teach climate change in schools as a challenge. Solutions, class? Things like the auto companies standing behind stricter standard makes me hopeful even if it is purely economic interests that drive the decision. Jay Inslee, the one issue/climate change presidential candidate, having to drop out so early is not encouraging.

Posted by Not Rocket Science, a resident of Los Altos Hills,
on Aug 27, 2019 at 6:27 pm

Fewer modern society people (i.e. smaller advanced populations) = fewer harmful emissions & waste products.

Simple as that.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 28, 2019 at 10:40 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@NotRocket -- I expect that's true, but it's a tough sell. The challenge is to help people live greener lifestyles without their feeling like they are sacrificing (much). Look at what some companies are trying with the new meat alternatives. Same with LED bulbs, better insulation, etc. But green alternatives do not always exist (e.g., airplanes), and others have uncertain implications (e.g., 100% renewable power). So an alternative to relying on swappable green substitutes is to make it more evident how much some existing technologies are polluting the planet, so that people are more willing to choose an alternative that has some tradeoffs. Imagine if all the CO2 we were emitting were black and sticky instead of transparent. It would make us all “A Better Future” people. Instead of seeing primarily the “loss” in the Caltrain electrification (a power outage will reduce service), we might instead be relieved to see it happening, think of outages as a small sacrifice for a much larger gain (greatly reduced emissions), and be more willing to chip in and find ways to accommodate and improve. A hefty carbon tax could do similar -- people would naturally become “A Better (Cheaper) Future” people.

That said, I read somewhere that if we just lived like in the ‘70s, we would be a lot better off emissions-wise. Maybe that is what you had in mind?

Posted by 4 legs, green and kill ya, a resident of Midtown,
on Aug 28, 2019 at 9:05 pm

Did all my votes get counted?

Still should have had a straight denier category.

Posted by tots for toys, a resident of Midtown,
on Aug 29, 2019 at 9:56 pm

I only voted a couple times before I got bored. Stick with factual content, please.

Posted by menlo mom, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Aug 30, 2019 at 11:55 am

I disagree with Tots for Toys. I found this immensely interesting.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 31, 2019 at 10:46 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@menlomom -- Thank you! This was a lot of fun to think about, and I appreciate everyone who took the time to vote.

I do find that different people like very different posts, so I plan to continue to do a variety, even if it seems a bit scattered.

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