DORA TAN: Hi, I'm Dora Tan. I'll be talking about my internship at the Environmental Defense Fund. So climate change, cue the dramatic music, right? When we hear mentions of climate change, we think of unbelievably hot temperatures. We think of devastating natural disasters. We think of polar bears stranded on ice. Others focus on how there is still snow on the ground, and they speculate about Chinese hoaxes.
So while there is a lot of reasons for why there is this divide, whether differences in political ideologies, or differences in values and priorities, there is one common denominator. And that is beliefs. Our position on climate change is shaped by our beliefs. And our beliefs tend to bring along with them some misconceptions, as I've increasingly started to realize through the summer.
This summer I was able to work at the Environmental Defense Fund as a Communication and Social Science Intern. And there, I worked on research projects that backed advocacy efforts of the organization. And in doing so I became more aware of misconceptions people had about environmental issues, assumptions they made to guide their understanding. And these assumptions have quite an ability to hinder progressive action towards climate change mitigation.
One of the projects I worked on was tracking the development of EDF's Methane Mapping Program. And when EDF was first proposing to map methane leaks in 2012, utility companies were super opposed to this. They were certain that this new information would lead to public outrage, would lead to thousands of angry phone calls about gas explosions.
But once the first city launched its maps, however, interestingly enough, people didn't care about explosions. They were more interested in health impacts than they were about flying manhole covers. And from this, I became more interested in other perceptions people had. Not just on environmental issues themselves, but on their views of how others view the same issues.
And I became interested in social perceptions. And social perceptions are the impressions people have about other people. And to give that some context, here's an example. Can everyone just take a second to think about what an environmentalist looks like? Just whatever pops up first in their head?
Who thought of a white person? Yeah. Yeah, I did too. And so we're not alone. People generally associate being green with being white.
And one past EDF project actually studied this. After giving people descriptions of a woman's lifestyle, where she brought her food in glass containers, where she biked to work, where she wore vintage clothing, people assumed that her behavior was for sustainability when she had a WASPy name. However, if she had the name of an African-American, Asian-American, or Latino woman, it was seen as being thrifty.
People also associate being green with being wealthy. So EDF has a partnership with Wal-Mart who, years ago, tried selling more sustainable products, such as Method soap. But the company couldn't figure out why people weren't buying the soap, especially at its affordable price. And then they found out that actually, because it was so cheap, people didn't think it was actually real. And they actually had to raise the price of the soap in order to get people to buy it.
So social perceptions on environmentalism has larger implications than judging behavior and selling soap thought. A recent study by EDF, Cornell University, and Pomona College suggests that the environmental concerns of minorities are underestimated, even by minorities themselves. And here shows another example of where the misconception of being green and being white comes up again.
The public falsely believes that minorities don't care about the environment, when they actually care more about the environment than white people do. For instance, Latinos are the most environmentally concerned of all demographics in the US. And they're actually the largest-growing population. However, they are still under-represented in decision-making bodies. And this misconception and this widespread notion of levels of concerns actually leads to a lack of engagement in issues in the political sphere, or in local communities. And this is all just based off of the fact that people think that others like them don't care.
So here arises the challenge of trying to engage people who have this unspoken environmental concern but don't realize it. And so theories in communication and psychology lend some approach just through norms, psychological distances, and dialogue. So when people are in a minority, they tend to be more subjective to norms and more influenced by norms.
So if they think that a behavior is normal they will be likely to engage in that behavior. Also issues are made more salient when they're psychologically closer. So if they're spatially close or temporally closer, people will be more likely to believe that they're actually happening. Further while it seems simple to just give information out to these groups, it's been shown that engaging them in conversations is actually more effective in solidifying norms.
So what does this translate into? To engage minorities in environmental issues, it's important for them to be made aware that they have these concerns and they're shared among their community. So this isn't to lecture them about their misconceptions. Instead, it's to open up discussions and allow them to have these conversations, allow them to realize that they have these shared norms.
And this will allow for them to motivate each other, to get into collective action. And even better is if these conversations happened in local communities, especially those that are affected by environmental risk. So it's important to recognize that this approach isn't limited to just Latino engagement environmental issues. Misunderstandings about a lot of things have hindered progress towards climate change mitigation.
And it still does. But it could be avoided. So if we highlight norms, if we make issues salient, if we engage in dialogue, we'll be able to combat that. So I encourage everyone to challenge their assumptions, especially their own. Thank you.
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Dora Tan presents on the Environmental Defense Fund, New York, NY, as part of a series of TED talks for COMM 3080, "Capstone Course in Environmental & Sustainability Communication: From the Lab to the World."