The GSB Interview

The GSB Interview: Eric Fine, Yale Program on Climate Change Communications, on How Sports Can Best Engage on Climate

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GreenSportsBlog has been urging the sports world take on climate change much more urgently and directly than it has to date. 

Thing is, climate change communications is not easy. If it was, humanity would be further along in solving it. 

That is why we talked with Eric Fine of the outstanding Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) about being more effective when talking about climate in general and how the sports world can do better in particular.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Eric, I’ve long admired the work of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication so I’m very glad to talk with you. Before getting into YPCCC’s work and how sports can be more effective in climate change communication, let’s start with your background and how you got into this work.

Eric Fine: I grew up in Montclair, NJ and, through being a Boy Scout, got into the outdoors and things like rock climbing and mountain biking at an early age. That led to me starting my career as an outdoor educator with Outward Bound. Over 15 years, I used wilderness expeditions involving skills such as mountaineering and canoeing as metaphors for how to take on life’s challenges. I worked in a wide range of places from Washington and Alaska to Boston, New York City, and Costa Rica, helped set up Outward Bound Spain, and directed their Patagonia program in southern Argentina and Chile.

 

 

Eric Fine (Photo credit: Kike Calvo)

 

GSB: Did you see evidence of climate change up close during those years?

Eric: In the early 2000s, in Washington and Alaska, I would go to a glacier once. Older locals who had been there for decades would tell me the glacier ‘really is a lot smaller than it used to be.’ In 2005, my first time in Argentina and Chile, local folks there talked to me about how climate change was harming them. Working down there for about ten years, each year I went down, I could see differences.

We camped on the edge of one particular glacier year after year. Each year, the bottom edge of the glacier was a little higher up the mountain. When the melt was too much, the rocks would be unstable and so we couldn’t summit. Local guides said that never happened before. I ended up marrying a woman from Patagonia; my father-in-law told me that, when he was young, the tallest of three mountains in his area was easy to summit; now, because of climate change-related instability, even the shortest of the three is difficult.

All of this made me think my next job had to be in climate change. But what would that look like? I quickly determined that I was interested in climate solutions. Climate change had so many causes; there were at least that many solutions out there. I wasn’t interested in focusing on one solution. I started asking myself: Is there a way to make a paradigm shift so that all climate solutions happen?

GSB: I never thought about it in those terms. What did you do to get involved in the climate solutions paradigm shift?

Eric: I went to a lot of climate conferences, did a ton of networking. Ended up talking to a New York Times journalist who told me about the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication who work on what moves people to change their attitudes and actions.

So, I went for a master’s in environmental science at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies where YPCCC is housed. I started working with them as a Project Manager in 2016. My job includes being the liaison on climate communications with Latin America as well as with Latino communities in the USA, and developing partnerships with advocacy groups, governments, universities and museums.

GSB: That’s an impressive remit indeed. Talk about the mission and the work of YPCCC.

Eric: Our mission is to advance the science of climate change communication, help leaders communicate more effectively, and increase the public’s understanding of climate risks and opportunities. We conduct scientific research on public climate change knowledge, attitudes, policy preferences, and behavior at the global, national, and local levels.

Our research is published through public reports and via interactive maps.

GSB: Which are fantastic!

Eric: Thanks. And we also publish Yale Climate Connections– an online news site and daily, 90-second radio program broadcast on over 500 stations nationwide. Its focus is to help citizens and institutions understand how the changing climate is already affecting our lives.

GSB: Readers, I can’t recommend YPCCC and Yale Climate Connections enough. After you read this interview, please sign up for their email updates. Eric, what are some of the major findings from recent YPCCC research and surveys, especially as it relates to the climate solutions that inspired you to do this work in the first place?

Eric: We see six groups of Americans regarding their attitudes on climate change, based on our surveys. We call it Global Warming’s Six Americas. Here are the results from our most recent survey in December:

 

Alarmed                    29%

Concerned                30

Cautious                    17

Disengaged                5

Doubtful                     9

Dismissive                  9

One thing that comes through is that those who are doubtful and dismissive, at 18 percent combined, are a much smaller group than the alarmed and concerned, which combined represent 59 percent.

Another thing we learned is that solutions like investing in renewable energy, regulating pollution, and taxing pollution all get bipartisan support. And 82 percent of respondents said that investing in the environment will be good or neutral for the economy.

GSB: So, it seems like the public is on board with climate solutions perhaps even more so than the climate problem itself?

Eric: Finding solutions to climate change is a less polarized issue, according to our survey results. It seems as though that’s because many see those solutions as solving other problems — for example, a reduced involvement with the Middle East.

A related interesting thing that we’re seeing from the results is something called pluralistic ignorance.

GSB: What is that?

Eric: It means that we don’t know what other people think and are often way off base. For example, 75 percent of Americans think a woman President would be a good thing or at least OK but only a third think their neighbors would be OK with a woman in the White House.

Pluralistic ignorance is relevant as it relates to climate change too.

In “Americans Underestimate How Many Others in the U.S. Think Global Warming is Happening,” a study we published on July 2nd, we found that the American public underestimates how many other Americans think global warming is happening (i.e., they underestimate the social consensus on global warming). Quoting from the report, ‘Americans on average estimate that only 54 percent of other Americans think global warming is happening, when in fact, 69 percent of Americans do.’ We broke it down by political affiliation and found that even liberal democrats, at 63 percent, underestimated the support among Americans of global warming’s reality. Independents registered at 50 percent and conservative republicans were at 48 percent.

 

 

GSB: What can we glean from these data?

Eric: The majority of people in the United States are worried about climate change, yet 63 percent say they “rarely” or “never” discuss it with family and friends, while 37 percent say they do so “occasionally” or “often.” If you underestimate how many people understand that the climate is changing or are worried about it, you are less likely to bring up the topic in conversations. And then not hearing it in conversations or on the news reinforces that original misperception.

If you are worried yourself, know that you are in the majority and the people around you are more likely than not to be on the same page. So, don’t be afraid to break the climate silence.  Talk about climate change with your friends and family.  Doing so is the first step to successfully addressing the issue.

GSB: You know what? Even though I write about climate and talk about it professionally, I often succumb to “Climate Silence” in my personal life. That will change. How and when did YPCCC get involved with sports?

Eric: Staff members at Protect Our Winters (POW) saw our director, Anthony Leiserowitz give a presentation at the 2017 Citizens’ Climate Lobby International Conference in which one of his key points was that climate deniers were not as prominent a segment of the country as was perceived. POW leadership decided their athletes needed to know this and so we spoke to their Athletes’ Summit at Snowbird outside Salt Lake City later that year. The athletes loved it! POW soon invited me to be on its advisory board. We then helped them develop a member survey to better understand their audience.

We’re also working with the American Alpine Club, a group of mountaineers, rock climbers and ice climbers, helping them to survey their members about their attitudes on climate. Early results are very positive and a climate-themed campaign, based in part on the survey, has now been launched.

GSB: That’s a great start but I think the big opportunity is for YPCCC to survey fans about their attitudes on climate change/global warming, and specifically fans of the sports with the biggest followings — football, basketball, baseball, soccer, etc. What do you think? 

Eric: I think a survey of fans would be very beneficial to decision makers at the NBA, NFL, the Green Sports Alliance and more. The more they understand their audiences, the better they can design climate messaging that will engage them.

It would be very interesting, and to see where they fall by sport, education level, income, on the Global Warming’s Six Americas scale.

And it would be great to ask fans…

  • How would you react to an athlete on your favorite team who talked about climate change?
  • How would you react to your team running global warming-themed public service announcements on the video board?
  • If one of your favorite athletes asked you to take a specific action on climate change, would you?

The results would be fascinating and could show that team decision makers who think that climate change is too political and that fans don’t want them to talk about it could be wrong, at least in some cases.

It would also be interesting to see how fans would react to different athletes when they talk about climate change. That would tell us who the messengers are and for what audiences.

GSB: This tells me one thing: The Green Sports Alliance, which last did a quantitative fan study in 2014 needs to do another post haste. And it needs to have the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication design and conduct it.

 

 


 

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1 Comment

  1. Awesome interview and excellent points from Eric. We have collected national data examining research questions regarding sport fans that Eric suggests. We were able to compare sport and non-sport fans. Moreover, we have other data that speak to the points of attachment Eric suggests examining (i.e., athletes, teams, etc.).

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