Pennsylvania Legacies #171: Beyond Climate Despair

It’s easy to get demoralized in the face of climate change, especially when it feels like there’s nothing we, as individuals, can do about it. An initiative from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) in Pittsburgh is trying to change the dynamic by reframing the crisis in terms of local impacts and helping western Pennsylvanians meet it on their own terms. PEC’s Lily Jones spoke with Dr. Bonnie McGill of CMNH’s Climate and Rural Systems Partnership.

The science is settled, and by now most people believe that climate change is real and happening now. Broad majorities, both nationally and in Pennsylvania, say they’re worried about its impacts and want their leaders to take action. Still, the pace of progress can feel maddeningly slow, and every week the projections look more dire. It’s a recipe for despair, as people increasingly feel powerless and disconnected from the decision-making. Meanwhile, despite the deepening consensus about the fact of a changing climate, research shows the language around it remains polarizing: the phrase “climate change” itself is often enough to shut down a conversation, even among people who know better.

A future-visioning exercise at a CRSP gathering in fall 2021.

Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) is trying to change that dynamic, with its Climate and Rural Systems Partnership initiative (CRSP). The goal is to short-circuit political hot buttons and get people in rural Western Pennsylvania focused on what’s right in front of them: how a changing climate affects them, their neighbors, and their communities.

“Conventional climate communication has used this fear-based approach of assuming people needed more information to convince them into acting to avoid a scary future,” said Dr. Bonnie McGill of CMNH’s Anthropocene Studies Section. “However, decades of this approach have been largely ineffective. It’s gotten people who are already motivated about the environment engaged, but for folks who don’t have that it hasn’t really worked well.”

“As scientists, we haven’t done a great job at helping people find effective climate actions that people in communities can take.”

Through gatherings of community partners and online resources, CRSP shares tools to help organizations and individuals have more productive conversations around climate change. Some goals include helping people see that they’re not alone in fighting climate change, sharing climate-friendly actions and behaviors, and creating a comfortable space to talk about climate change — and actually using the phrase ‘climate change’.

Examples of how CRSP participants wanted to see the Laurel Highlands in 2030: “People move to the area — thriving small towns with affordable cost of living.”

“We’ve found a real need to help people identify where in systems like energy, transportation systems, and agriculture people can take action so that they have an authentic story to tell other people about climate action. We usually think we have to change beliefs in order to change peoples’ behaviors, but sometimes action can actually change beliefs,” said Dr. McGill.

Some actions Dr. McGill suggests are: voting for climate policy and leaders that are dedicated to climate action, eating less “cheap meat,” changing your home energy source to renewables, and researching solar co-ops through organizations like Solar United Neighbors.

Discussing tangible actions and benefits to communities can be a useful way to avoid getting hung up on divisive politics. When talking with people of differing political views, Dr. McGill recommends skipping the discussion on whether climate change is real and jumping right into solutions and benefits of taking action. According to research from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 60% or more of people in the Laurel Highlands Region think that global warming is happening.

“More people want to talk about climate change than you might think,” said Dr. McGill.