What People Really Think About Climate Change

April 7, 2022

Alumnus Matthew Goldberg talks climate change and why some people continue to doubt it.

Matt Goldberg, Psychology Alumnus
Matthew Goldberg (courtesy of Goldberg)

How can we better understand climate change? And how do we build the public will to address it? These are some of the big questions that Matthew Goldberg asks through his research at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

As a social scientist, Goldberg (Ph.D. '18, Psychology) probes deep into the science of climate change communication. He was recently named a Rising Star by the Association for Psychological Science. This month, Goldberg spoke to the Graduate Center about his work and the role of climate change communication in our society.

The Graduate Center: Can you describe the main focus of your work at Yale?

Goldberg: We want to understand what people understand or misunderstand about climate change, its causes, its effects, and its solutions. I lead the experimental research program within the research center, which is more about, “What can we do to build awareness, increase understanding, reduce barriers, and build public and political will to address climate change?”

GC: How have people's opinions about climate change changed in recent years?

Goldberg: On the whole, climate change concern has been increasing in countries all around the world. We've done some work in collaboration with the Gallup World Poll in over 100 countries looking at climate change concern and public opinion. In general, yes, people in countries all around the world are becoming increasingly concerned.

GC: Consumer activism. What is it and how you see it play out in the U.S.?

Goldberg: Consumer activism can manifest in a bunch of different ways, but our general understanding of it is how consumers use their dollars to participate in the market, choosing where to spend their money depending on a company's environmental practices or labor practices and so on.

The way we have typically measured this in the United States is people's willingness or actual rewarding and punishing of companies because of their environmental behavior. A lot of folks are trying to avoid certain companies because they have either opposed climate action or have had poor practices in the past. And then you also have, “Well, I want to spend my money with companies that are doing something about it, that are leading this front towards climate action.”

GC: Do you see these consumers affecting change? Do you see them making a difference?

Goldberg: I think so. Part of it is through signaling. When companies make a declaration that they’re supporting climate action, that message can be really powerful to their customers, to their investors, or to their employees.

Of course, we want to hold these companies accountable. We don't want just their promises, we want to make sure that they’re indeed taking the action they say they're taking. On the one hand, we want to get those commitments. But at the same time, we want to keep these companies accountable so they're not “greenwashing,” acting like they're pro-environment when they're actually doing little or nothing, or even opposing climate action.

GC: In light of overwhelming scientific evidence, why do some Americans continue to doubt climate change?

Goldberg: Our research has broken down the American public into six distinct groups, what we call Global Warming’s Six Americas. So, it ranges from the most engaged group, the “alarmed” — who are very worried about climate change and they strongly support climate action — all the way to the “dismissive,” who firmly reject climate action and are often outright hostile to climate change policies, or sometimes the idea that climate change is even happening.

I would distinguish between those we call dismissive versus those that are “disengaged.” Those who are dismissive are often highly engaged individuals and they’re actively opposing climate action, whereas those that are disengaged often say they don't know whether climate change is happening. They often don't have a lot of exposure to information about climate change. The underpinnings of this are very different. The disengaged usually lack information about climate change, whereas the dismissive often believe what they believe because of misinformation about climate change.

GC: Which of these groups is most common in the U.S.?

Goldberg: The largest group is the “alarmed” and they’re the folks that are most worried about climate change. They're typically most engaged on the issue and support climate action.

I led an investigation to further segment that group. It has fluctuated over the years, but it's about a third of the American population that we would consider alarmed. And, we get well over a majority if we lump the alarmed and the “concerned,” who are a little bit less engaged than the alarmed. It’s not as high on their priority list.

GC: How does climate-change denial manifest in American politics?

Goldberg: This is a hugely important question.

There are a few important overview points to make. One is that, particularly in the U.S., the folks that are really strongly opposing climate action, that's about 9% of the U.S. population. But in Congress, they're enormously overrepresented.

Why is that? There are a whole bunch of reasons. Scholars have done many books on this topic alone. The one piece of that is the money and power that the fossil fuel industry wields.

I led one study on campaign finance and contributions from oil and gas companies to candidates for Congress and the Senate. We found that it represents this sort of investment structure, we called it “influence versus investment.” Influence would mean they're trying to push elected officials to change their minds. Rather, we found it's more of this investment setup where they find who is acting and voting anti-environment in their legislative careers and then they're funding and donating lots of money to those people.

That's just one tiny piece of the overall, big picture of lobbying, disinformation, and greenwashing.

GC: What advice would you give to yourself at the start of your Ph.D. program?

Goldberg: What I've realized is that producing a ton of work is one thing, and that can speak for itself. But really, you want to do outstanding, high-impact work that solves real-world problems. I’ve started to pick up my stride on this since I've spent a few years at Yale. We're in this very applied program. We're so in touch with the climate community that we really get a sense of what's needed and how leaders, governments, and public communicators are using our research findings.

Being impact-focused is a huge part of that, where you ask, “How am I going to do the best work that's going to help solve this problem?” Rather than, “What’s most academically interesting?” Because sometimes academia rewards you for being very narrow … It depends on which kind of career you want to focus on. But no matter what, becoming impact-focused is essential.

Then, build up valuable and rare skills. The reason why I say “rare” is that you're already going to build up a lot of skills by going through a graduate program. But you really start to gain a lot of standing when you can do things that other people can't do. Then you start to see people come to you, and you're able to build your career on it.


Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing