As our office shifts into engagement mode, I am spending more and more time talking with different groups about our work here at the Dane County Office of Energy & Climate Change. I am privileged to talk about Dane County’s leadership and the hundreds of people that contributed to our Climate Action Plan, for example, and I also get to see the momentum that’s building around our efforts to take action to reduce emissions.
In these conversations it’s common for someone to ask me whether our efforts will be jeopardized by climate deniers. Implicit in this question is a sense that the public is evenly divided on climate change and that we can’t move forward until we convince people climate change is real.
But that’s not the case here in Wisconsin and it’s especially not the case in Dane County. It's not the case because, first, County Executive Joe Parisi has made clear, on numerous occassions, that our work is based on science and, second, because public opinion on climate change is less divided than you might think.
I've been using the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication maps to illustrate this point. The Yale group has been tracking public opinion on climate issues for a long time and their data is available online in various forms, incluidng maps. The maps show what Americans believe about climate change by state and even by county and congressional district within a state. And that means we can look at public opinion in Dane County and across Wisconsin.
There are two important things to note relative to this map:
When I show this map to folks I assert that our challenge is not to convince people that climate change is real—people already know that. The challenge now is to engage people in action around climate change—to inspire them to support and participate in the activities that will reduce our emissions and manage the climate change we experience.
Convincing folks to act is challenging. We all live busy lives and have to prioritize where to focus our time and attention. Most Americans think climate change is far off in the future or only likely to affect people in other parts of the world. Americans think climate change won’t affect them. This is the case even here in Dane County. Here’s another Yale map – this time asking if people think climate change will harm them personally.
Look at all that blue--that means less than 50% of people think climate change will harm them personally. Here in Dane County only four in ten people think climate change will harm them—even though we had flash floods in our area in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Folks think they won’t be harmed even though our public health agencies can tell you that the changing climate has already increased the likelihood of allergies, asthma and insect-carried diseases (West Nile, Lyme) in our communities.
This second map matters a lot because people tend to act on issues that affect them personally. If people think climate change just affects other people in the future it’s easy to put off action. The thing is, science tells us we can’t afford to put off action any longer. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us that we need to cut our emissions by 45% by 2030 to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Dane County’s Climate Action Plan is grounded in science. Heeding the IPCC’s findings we are producing a plan that lays out strategies to reduce county-wide economy-wide emissions consistent with the IPCC recommendations.
Our challenge is not to convince folks that climate change is real; our challenge is to inspire everyone to act now so that we can achieve our ambitious 2030 goals.
And that’s where you can help. On our website we identify multiple ways that you can get involved in Dane County’s climate efforts. Together, as Dane County, we can do this.
Kathy is the Energy & Climate Specialist in the Dane County’s Office of Energy and Climate Change. In that role she's leading efforts to implement the Climate Action Plan. Prior to coming to Dane County, Kathy led Cool Choices and, prior to that, Wisconsin's Focus on Energy program.
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