Why So Many Americans Are Silent About the Climate Crisis

by | November 1, 2019

Last weekend I had the pleasure of presenting to a class of confirmation students and their parents. As always, I did my best to toe the line of telling the hard truth about the climate crisis while also inspiring action and hope – showing how we’re each far more powerful than we realize and sharing ideas for how to make a meaningful impact now.

After sharing my story, I led off the presentation with something like this:

RH: “Now I want to start off by asking you a question – what percentage of people in the US hear their friends, family, or coworkers talk about global warming at least once a month? What do you think?”

After a brief silence, repeating of the question, and bribing them with candy, the guesses started to come in. They were mostly way too high (“75%!, 50, 40, 90, 80”), until a parent got close.

The answer is 23% as of this April. Only 23% of people in the US hear their family, friends, or coworkers talk about global warming at least once a month.

Meanwhile, 63% of people “rarely or never” hear about it.

This graphic is from 2016 but shows you the gist of it. (All of these stats come from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication by the way.)

People rarely hear about climate change

RH: “Now let me ask you another question – What percentage of people in the US believe global warming is happening? And what percentage are worried about it?”

Again, guesses came in all over the place, but this time, consistently lower than the correct answer.

As of last month, 67% of people in the US believe global warming is happening. And 60% of people are worried about it.

67% believe global warming is happening

60% of people are worried about global warming

So a majority of people believe it’s happening (67%). Only 16% don’t think it’s happening.

And a majority of people are worried about it (60%).

But hardly anyone is talking about it (only 23% talk about it at least once a month. 63% of people rarely or never talk about it).

Why? What’s going on here?

I would argue the negligence of the US media, the decades-long fossil fuel disinformation campaign, and the disingenuous politicization of what should be a bipartisan issue are massive factors to consider.

But there’s also a social theory that I think is worth understanding because it may be at play. (In the US at least. Many other countries, rightly, think we’re bat-shit crazy for culturally being so far behind on this issue.)

The Spiral of Climate Silence

The term “Spiral of Silence” was coined by a German, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, during her research into why so many people stayed quiet during Hitler’s rise to power.

The basic idea is that people tend to stay silent when they think their view on an issue is different from the majority’s (typically for moral and emotionally charged issues).

People stay silent because they fear social isolation or losing something, like status, by speaking up about the issue.

“No one talks [about global warming], so no one feels comfortable talking. Silence begets silence begets silence, widening the gap between popular discourse and public opinion, in an ever-descending spiral.” – Jeremy Deaton

You see, we take our cues from others – we’re a social species. So if nobody’s talking about global warming, or not treating it like an emergency when they do bring it up, we believe the majority opinion is that others aren’t concerned – or are even hostile against the topic.

And If we think it doesn’t matter to other people, we are less likely to speak up about it for fear of social isolation or losing social status.

Yale and George Mason researchers suggest there is a spiral of climate silence saying, “…even people who care about the issue, shy away from discussing it because they so infrequently hear other people talking about it – reinforcing the spiral.”

The researchers go on to say, “More than half of those who are interested or think global warming is important “rarely” or “never” talk about it with family and friends (57% and 54% respectively).”

I bring this up to name the spiral of silence influencing our society today on the most important issue facing humanity.

And I shared the above charts to prove that being concerned about global warming is not a minority opinion – it’s how most people feel.

You’re not alone. Others are thinking it. And before we can solve anything, we need to start talking about it way more than we are right now.

So, if you’re not already, I encourage you to speak up. It’s one of the most powerful things we can do.

And if you are already talking about it, I encourage you to talk about it even more. I know I can do better on this front myself.

Climate silence is deadly.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

How to start talking about climate?

No need to get in an argument or anything obviously – that doesn’t do anyone any good. I think the sweet spot for talking about the climate crisis is a balance of being realistic about our situation, non-judgmental, and optimistic through the fact that each of us can make a difference every day.

Weaving global warming into conversations in a way that connects to people’s values (health, safety, children, etc.) is a wise move.

I would encourage you to check out the two sections in last week’s newsletter titled, “Be a good guide for people – a partner.” and “Meet people where they are.”

A key to this is actually to listen more than you talk – to be on the other person’s team as much as possible.

Ways to actually bring it up:

  • Use the unusual weather or the inevitable extreme/unprecedented event happening somewhere in the world.
  • Use a story that you heard about recently or a surprising fact (these newsletters should be good jumping-off points).
  • For people you’re close with – just say you need to get this off your chest. Share how you’re feeling about it and why it matters to you.


“Wow, those California wildfires are getting out of control. It’s just nonstop. I heard the area burned annually is up 500% since the 1970s, largely because of global warming. Thankfully, my family hasn’t been evacuated but my cousin’s school is keeping everyone inside because of the air pollution.”

“I can’t believe how hot it is – 70℉ on Halloween in Boston?! Global warming is really starting to get pretty scary. Did you know that the last five years were the hottest on record? Or that if you’re under the age of 34 you’ve never lived in a cooler than average month?”

Once you get into it…

“I think this really is an all hands on deck issue – it’s that urgent. We’re going to have to come together in our communities, companies, and states to make the sustainable changes that need to be made ASAP.”

…Or just yell at the TV when they fail to mention or downplay the issue if that’s where you need to start – but do start speaking up more!

We won’t solve this if we don’t start talking about it.

This post originally featured in the Crowdsourcing Sustainability newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter below!

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