There are numerous examples of a growing U.S. climate movement. Protests against the Keystone XL pipeline drew an estimated 40,000 people to the National Mall in Feb. 2013, and a million comments were submitted to the State Department opposing the pipeline by late April; a national anti-coal campaign has shut down hundreds of existing and proposed coal-fired power plants; over 10,000 congregations have come together under the umbrella of Interfaith Power and Light to activate faith communities; and a growing student and popular movement is pressuring universities, faith communities and cities to divest from fossil fuels. Congress, however, remains deadlocked on the issue, with climate Dismissives blocking action. As a legislative response to climate change is unlikely without increased levels of civic activism, this study sought to identify some of the cognitive and social processes that motivate people to become issue advocates.
Using nationally representative survey data, we found that climate activists are significantly more likely than non-activists to:
- Believe global warming is happening and human-caused;
- Perceive global warming as a serious threat;
- Believe that global warming is solvable;
- Believe that their own and our collective actions can make a difference;
- Serve as opinion leaders within their own social networks.
Together, the analyses suggest that those working to build a broad, sustained climate movement should continue to emphasize that human-caused global warming is happening and a serious threat. The threat posed by climate change should continue to be a component of climate change messaging, but should be accompanied – and perhaps even preceded – by messages on effective actions individuals can take. Importantly, most Americans perceive multiple barriers to political participation, and have low expectations about the effectiveness of political activism. Thus, helping potential advocates understand the effectiveness of political activism and providing positive feedback is essential. Finally, campaigns should work to identify, support, and encourage opinion leaders willing to initiate conversations about climate change within their own and wider social networks.