Notes on a “climate silence” from the perspective of climate activists.
It’s odd to be a climate activist.
I founded a non-profit dedicated to government regulating the fossil fuel industry, and where I commonly talk with lots of other “climate people” just like me. I’ll often see these same people at all the climate marches too.
When we talk to each other, conversations often end with a “thanks for your great work” affirmation. As if we already know such moral support will likely not be forthcoming elsewhere. And that these assurances were part of our collegial obligation.
In contrast to my climate activist “superhero” world, where conversations flow freely, I have found — spoiler alert — that talking about climate change to the majority of people who are not climate activists, is all too frequently an uncomfortable and prickly matter.
Sure, climate science politics are famously polarizing, but I found this to be true even with “friendly” audiences who don’t reject the science on ideological grounds.
Surely I thought, feeling pressure to bury my thoughts and despair about climate change in my everyday interactions must be stifling the political process!
When there’s so many more of “them” than there are of us, is it a surprise that climate leaders feels compelled to make their alarm about climate change more “vanilla” if anything at all, so as to not freak people out?
The ‘Alarmed’ are a Political Minority
I’ll go out on limb here and describe people “alarmed” by climate change — those who are already responding politically and in their personal lifestyles to the climate change emergency — as a politically distinct, outside-the-mainstream subculture. That is *sigh* in comparison to a relatively apathetic, yet more mainstream, majority. Most people won’t be holding their own, home town climate strike. 
Research on the “Climate Silence”
Last year I conducted a pilot study at the Graduate School of Communication at San Francisco State University (chilling fact: I took my comprehensive exams right when the pandemic hit). By interviewing a small set of climate activists (my subjects were all politically engaged in the climate crisis), I wanted to know whether other de facto climate change leaders experience too this uncomfortable ‘Spiral of Silence’ in America.
The study focused on climate activist’s everyday climate change talk experiences with non-activists, based on an Edward Maibach, et al., quantitative study that found more than half of Americans rarely or never report talking to friends or family about climate change. 
While we all pretty much know that acceptance and/or urgency of climate science tends to fall predictably along a conservative (less acceptance or urgency) to liberal (more) continuum, preliminary results of my research suggest that even when climate activists talk to their accepting (non-activist) friends, family, colleagues or acquaintances about their alarm; it makes these same folks feel uncomfortable.
More to the point, when climate activists engage on the subject of climate change outside their inner circle, the resulting awkwardness and social pressure — I defined it as a “climate anxiety” — might be a contributing factor in the climate silence.
Doing Something Big About Climate Change is a Radical Idea
Simple math here: drastic emissions cuts will result in equally drastic cuts in fossil fuel consumption. The dramatic changes in the functions of our economic lives — dare I say, that stirs the imagination — can also invoke feelings of distress, remoteness, and a lack of control. 
To wit, the notion of undoing of an entire economic universe facilitated by fossil fuels represents significant alterations to deeply ingrained ways of life that shape our self-understanding. 
It is a completely outrageous course of action. It challenges people’s identities and easily generates all kinds of uncertainties which can result in a gaping chasm between the climate activist advocating for this, and the general public. 
Climate Activists are Unpopular Political Actors
A climate silence may indeed be non-alarmed political majorities defending a way of life — and real livelihoods — where climate activists as political actors are not well-liked in the first place.
Moreover, climate change, as a low-salience issue for most Americans, can turn a climate activist, as a political figure pushing against people’s identities and livelihoods, into an annoying pariah!
Josh Gamson describes this politic as the “normal excluding the abnormal.” Although environmental concerns including climate change, are richly represented in America, they are often marginalized and subsumed by more much powerful economic, social or national security issues. 
The climate activist who promotes economic ideas outside of convention can experience social pressure to change their attitudes in the direction of the status quo. They compete with the current visible economy — one of my interviewees (below) talks about gas stations — that stabilize and orient our way of life and convey authoritative standards of identity. 
Overly white, cosmopolitan, and elite, climate activists as political figures critique an economic system that is also a primary cultural mechanism of control. The “normal economy” as opposed to a more sustainable one that doesn’t exist, can restrict the ideas about changing it. Trying to do so, the climate activist is paternalistic from the point of view of this political majority, which is distorting an open political process. 
Climate activists (also human) in turn, may feel social pressure to subscribe to the needs of the majority by tempering their alarm about climate change in their everyday interactions.
Now in an untenable position of proving more sustainable systems can work, political majorities can more easily see climate activists as sanctimonious luddites trying to return us all to some romantically arcadian, pre-modern past. 
Gas Stations are Normal
On this notion of the current visible economy, and our dependence on it, one of my activists said, “Gas stations are these ubiquitous presences. That communicates what normalcy is, through their very existence.” He adds, “Part of what the message they’ve sent is that this is the world. Right? And therefore, anything that is not is sort of suspect.”
A gas station as a condition of modern life and which we need to survive, sits in contrast for instance, to the absence of any mainstream use of bus rapid transit, electric vehicles, bicycling, etc.
In other words, a climate activist espousing low carbon modes of transport, is also speaking about things not yet grounded in existing conventions and whence, have little social significance. 
Feeling (and Being Treated) Like an Oddball
Another climate activist reserves himself when talking about climate change to non-activists. “It’s a hit to your self-esteem. Makes you feel bad about yourself. You can question your sanity (laughing). You feel a little bit like perhaps you shouldn’t be giving this attention and you quickly realize that it’s not a topic anyone else is interested or you get put in your place.”
In another instance, a college instructor, reports on colleagues gaslighting his ideas at a faculty meeting, adding, “In terms of my personal life, we have a hundred professors in my English Department. I said, we have to change the whole curriculum to prepare students for climate breakdown. We have to focus on community building.” He told me the curriculum meeting was “Horrible! Terrible!! I’m in a meeting with, like, 50 or 60 people, and they don’t know what I’m talking about. And then two of them say, ‘Yeah, we’ll come to your office, and talk to you about it’, but they never did.”
In this instance, suggesting a curriculum-level response for a climate breakdown is a completely different model of reality that does not yet exist in comparison to, well, the one that already does. And he experiences social alienation as two “supportive” colleagues don’t follow through with his suggestions.
Climate Anxiety is a Form of Political Stasis
To be clear, a bigger study might not concur with these findings: namely, that large majorities of climate activist feel similar social pressure to “shut up”.
However, if a bigger study finds majorities of climate activist have similar experiences, this could shape the climate change politics that surround an already unpopular political figure.
It could explain for instance, the rhetorical effectiveness of the curious, repeated, and misogynist attacks against Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Greta is certainly my personal hero, but I am chagrined when right-wing dickheads successfully cast her as a naïve antagonist swept up by “the big hoax” that they can effectively pin onto climate activism in the popular imagination.
In summary, I think a climate anxiety — the low, in-the-moment threat of climate change challenging how people think of themselves — is derailing meaningful political efforts by climate activists. Made worse, of course, by the fact that climate activists may casually frost political majorities not yet fully engaged in the issue.
This reveals a climate activist’s message speaks into a vacuum. For many, this lack of endorsement will want them to change the subject. And this can make a climate activist feel silenced if they aren’t already silencing themselves.
 Leiserowitz, Anthony, Edward Maibach, Connie Roser-Renouf, and Nicholas Smith. “Global warming’s six Americas, May 2011.” Yale University and George Mason University (2011)
 Leiserowitz et al.
 Maibach, Edward, Anthony Leiserowitz, Seth Rosenthal, Connie Roser-Renouf, and Matthew Cutler. “Is there a climate “spiral of silence” in America.” Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (September 2016)
 O’Neill, Saffron, and Sophie Nicholson-Cole. “‘Fear Won’t Do It.’” Science Communication30, no. 3 (July 2009): 355–79
 Meyer, John M. “Populism, paternalism and the state of environmentalism in the US.” Environmental Politics, no. 2 (2008): 17.
 Meyer, Populism, paternalism and the state of environmentalism in the US; O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole.
 Meyer, Political Nature: Environmentalism and the Interpretation of Western
 Prentice, Deborah A., and Dale T. Miller. “Pluralistic Ignorance and Alcohol Use on Campus: Some Consequences of Misperceiving the Social Norm.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology64, no. 2 (1993): 243–56.
 Hipwell, William T. “A Deleuzian Critique of Resource-Use Management Politics in Industria.” The Canadian Geographer/Le G?Ographe Canadien48, no. 3 (2004): 356–77; Musello, Christopher. “Objects in Process: Material Culture and Communication.” Southern Folklore49, no.1 (1992): 37
 Gamson; Kramarae, Cheris. “Muted Group Theory.” Encyclopedia of Communication Theory (2005).
 Meyer, Populism, paternalism and the state of environmentalism in the US, 225.
 Hipwell, 371.