Global Warming’s “Six Americas” and Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog


In preparing for a submission to an international art competition on climate change, I came across The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC), a dedicated program within Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Fascinated by their research on public climate change attitudes, behaviors, knowledge, and policy preferences, I reached out to Associate Director, Lisa Fernandez, whose insights guided my application. What I learned from her and from studying the program’s data convinced me that the work of YPCCC is critical to artists of all disciplines whose art is focused on stimulating awareness of, and action against, man-made climate change. Specifically, Lisa called my attention to Global Warming’s “Six Americas.”

I have been as guilty as other artists who may assume that their creative expressions against an alarming global threat will be endorsed by an audience of like-thinkers and will convert those who think otherwise. But, in fact, the research conducted by YPCCC indicates that it is not so simple. They explain:

There is no one public response to climate change. Instead there are different audiences or “interpretive communities” within society who each respond to the issue in their own distinct ways. One of the first rules of effective communication is “know thy audience” – including who they are, what they currently understand or misunderstand about climate change, their perceptions of the risks, their underlying values, attitudes, and emotions, where they get their information, whom they trust, etc.

In other words, understanding your broader audience is a ‘critical first step’ to actually impacting their beliefs and actions.

According to the research, first conducted by YPCCC in 2008 and then updated as recently as 2016, there are six distinct American audiences with regards to climate change: the alarmed, the concerned, the cautious, the disengaged, the doubtful and the dismissive. Only the alarmed, representing just 18% of Americans, are fully convinced of the threat posed by climate change and are taking some sort of action to address it. Although the concerned, at 34% of the population, agree that it is a significant reality, they have not yet become actively involved in addressing the issue. The rest of the population are not yet fully convinced of the global dangers posed by climate change. (See video explaining the six Americans.)

Just as other groups interested in generating support for actions to combat climate change (such as environmental organizations, local, state, and national governments, businesses and the media, etc.) are using the framework of the Six Americas to direct their messages, so do artists need to consider the six diverse audiences of Americans if they want to effect real changes in attitudes.

The resources contained on the YPCCC’s website are extensive and include additional information on audiences and their opinions, the barriers to behavioral change and climate action, what messages are best for engaging different audiences and combatting misinformation on climate change. The New York Times recently highlighted the research of YPCCC in its article, “How Americans Think About Climate Change, in Six Maps.”

Two maps from the article shown above reveal a clear disconnect between the responses to the statements: (Left) Global warming will harm people in the United States, vs. (Right) Global warming will harm me personally. The responses on the left show that most people know climate change is happening (Light yellow-red being 50% – 100% agree) but those on the right indicate that most don’t believe it will hurt them (Light Blue to Dark Blue being 0% – 50% agree). Source: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

I asked Lisa Fernandez, Associate Director of YPCCC, the following questions related to the work of the program of the YPCCC and the artist’s role in addressing climate change:

What other YPCCC resources are particularly relevant to artists?

We have an outreach and communication arm called “Yale Climate Connections” that tells stories about global warming from many different perspectives, using the written word, video, and audio.  There is a daily 90-second radio show that has so far told nearly 700 stories, aired on more than 300 stations across the country (it’s also available as a podcast). There are a number of stories about art and climate, and we’re always looking for more material, especially if it’s focused on what people can do to address global warming. You can submit suggestions here.

What is the single most important thing that artists can do to address climate change?

Don’t underestimate the importance of “preaching to the choir,” (as well as to the other 4 Americans.) The single most common question people who are alarmed and concerned ask is “what can I do to make a difference?”  It actually makes a lot of sense to address your work to these two groups because you don’t need to convince them that it’s happening and that humans are causing it.  You can spend your energies engaging them in solutions.  There is tremendous potential here that is not yet tapped.

Why are you hopeful that we will ultimately be successful in reducing the effects of climate change?

Because of the energy that we see growing among the alarmed and the concerned to protest inaction (the People’s Climate March is gathering steam for April 29th in DC) and the increasingly widespread innovations that are proceeding apace in the business sector and states and cities. There are many examples in our radio stories. I think the profitability and quality of life improvements of the new energy economy are unstoppable, even given the orientation of the current administration. Former NYC Mayor Bloomberg has a great piece on why he remains optimistic.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a public artist, painter, photographer and educator whose work has been exhibited widely in galleries and museums throughout the country. Her mixed media paintings address current social and political issues.

In 2011, Susan established a long-term partnership with fellow artist, Elena Kalman to create socially relevant, interactive, public art projects. Their current, on-going works include The Wave, a national installation which addresses our mutual dependence upon and responsibility to protect water, and HOME, which calls attention to homelessness and the on-going need for affordable housing in our cities and states.


About Artists and Climate Change:

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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