Climate Change: What does perception have to do with it? 

By Sharon Lezberg, Community Development Educator

Do you know people who are anxious about climate change, but share that they don’t know what to do about it? Do you know others who believe that global warming is not happening?

I often find myself talking with people who are concerned about climate change and are working to find ways to address global warming, both on a personal level and as advocates for policy change. Even so, I recognize that there are others who either are paralyzed into inaction or think that the issue is too big to address at a personal level. Recently, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication released survey data showing how people in different geographical areas perceive climate change. Overall, there’s been a shift of opinion over the last decade, with more people expressing concern about climate change. It matters! When people perceive a problem, and are willing to talk about it, the next step is often action. 

How does Dane County compare with the rest of the State of Wisconsin, and the Nation as a whole in terms of perceptions about climate change? More importantly, given the overwhelming evidence of rapid climate change impacts, what can be done to build awareness and action to address global warming?

In Dane County, public opinion polling shows a population that is both aware of, and concerned about climate change, with 80% agreeing that global warming is happening (compared to 69% in Wisconsin) and with 66% recognizing the causal link between global warming and human activities (compared to 55% in Wisconsin). However, only 49% of Dane County’s population anticipate that global warming will affect them personally (42% of Wisconsin’s residents believe that warming will affect them personally). 43% of Dane County residents discuss global warming at least occasionally, and 40% hear about global warming in the media at least once a week.

Dane County residents are also more supportive of policy initiatives than Wisconsin or the nation as a whole. For example, 72% feel that the government should set strict CO2 limits on existing coal-fired power plants, while 70% support requiring utilities to produce 20% electricity from renewable sources. Similar to all Wisconsin residents, Dane County residents support offering tax rebates for energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels.

To see how Dane County compares with Wisconsin statewide, and with the entire US, see a data table HERE

There is a clear correlation between how much global warming is discussed (both in discourse and in the media) with public beliefs, risk perceptions, and policy support. The lesson? We need to continue to talk about climate change, both in our personal lives and interactions. Climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe has stated that one of the most important things any of us can do concerning climate change is to talk about it! With engaged conversations, we can help each other address our concerns and support collective actions. Changing individual perceptions and behaviors are still important – both for cutting down our own emissions, and to create demand in the market economy to stimulate change – and this all starts with conversation.

You can find out more about public perception of climate change in Dane County in this summary report for Dane County.

Yale Climate Program on Climate Change Communication, Global Warming’s Six Americas, or to see visualizations on American Climate opinion, please click on the links provided.

Additional Links & Resources:

University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension Climate Resilience Menu – an integrated tool to assist communities to become more resilient to the impacts and shocks from major weather changes that disrupt communities.

Wisconsin Climate Connection – a website of the UW Extension Climate Leadership Team. Includes resources and stories about climate impacts.

Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts – the website of WICCI, a statewide collaboration of scientists and stakeholders formed as a partnership between UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. This site includes the 2021 Assessment Report on Wisconsin’s Changing Climate.