All I can say is, my Facebook friends are not behaving like average Americans. My closest circles of “real world” friends and family really aren’t either. I already knew that! I mean, every other post I see on social media is about climate change and the people I choose to hang out with are the types who talk about big, serious issues fairly often too. I knew we were not the norm. But these new public opinion numbers from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication are still surprising—and sobering.

Americans are talking about climate change even less than I’d thought:

  • Only one in three Americans say they discuss global warming at least occasionally with friends or family, up 4 percentage points since September 2012, but down 8 points since November 2008. A mere 4 percent report talking about it “often” and twenty-eight percent say they talk about it “occasionally.” That means 67 percent talk about climate “rarely” or “never.”
  • Few Americans (less than 8 percent) communicated publicly about global warming in the past 12 months (e.g., online or in the media). In fact, only 7 percent say they shared information about global warming on Facebook or Twitter. Only 18 percent of “the Alarmed” (the most concerned of Yale’s Six Americas population segments) say they’ve posted about global warming on Facebook or Twitter.
  • Only about one in ten Americans wrote letters, emailed, or phoned a government official about global warming in the past 12 months. Of those who did, three in four say they urged the official to take action to reduce it.
  • One in four Americans discussed a company’s “irresponsible environmental behavior” with their friends or family in the past 12 months.

We’ve seen in previous polling that experiencing extreme weather makes people more likely to acknowledge that climate change is real and happening now. Notably, Yale found that among Americans who experienced an extreme weather event in the past year (a majority of respondents), 77 percent said they’d talked to others about it face-to-face or by phone. These folks remained unlikely to discuss global warming using social media.

Yale also asked respondents what types of action they’d be likely to take. For all the lack of talk, Americans appear a bit more willing to act.

  • If asked by a person they “like and respect,” decent numbers of Americans say they’d sign a petition (45 percent), attend a public meeting (36 percent), or attend a neighborhood meeting about global warming (35 percent).
  • A surprising 24 percent of Americans would support an organization that engaged in non-violent civil disobedience against corporate or government activities that make global warming worse.
  • And as many as one in eight people (13 percent) say they would be willing to personally engage in non-violent civil disobedience against corporate or government activities that make global warming worse.

Perhaps the most important finding here is that Americans say their own family and friends have the greatest ability to convince them to take action to do something about global warming. In fact, all Yale’s population segments based on level of concern and engagement, the Six Americas, say their own family and friends have the greatest ability to convince them to take action to reduce global warming. Ranked highest were someone’s significant other and children.

  • So, it’s those closest to us—our family and friends—that have the most potential influence on us. Surprisingly respondents also ranked environmental leaders fairly high when it comes to their ability to convince Americans to take action on climate change. (This may be a case where people reporting about who influences them in a survey context doesn’t actually align with real-world influences.) But what may be even more surprising is that ranked lowest—along with the usual suspects, political leaders—were religious leaders (5 percent) and neighbors (2 percent). (This may say more about our frayed social fabric than it does about climate change messages.)

    But the takeaway—for anybody who thinks a lot about the best messengers to deliver climate change communications (as I do)—is that whoever you are, talking about climate to those closest to you is super important. You are the best messenger—to your partner, parents, children, and friends.

    Of course, if you’re reading this because I linked to it on Facebook, you’re already doing that!