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After the march, what's next for climate change?

In the days leading up the 2014 UN Climate Summit, thousands of people marched through New York to bring attention to climate change. Millions around the world joined in the effort, but will the movement last?

One expert says most of that hinges on whether people think climate change is real. A 2013 study by Yale and George Mason universities found nearly two out of three people in the U.S. believe global warming is occurring, but a small percentage of Americans say climate change is all hype.

Tim Calkins, a marketing professor in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, says the campaign faces a unique challenge because it has to prove there’s a problem. Calkins says the movement is getting it right by providing solid evidence that temperatures are rising.

In August, scientists at the National Climatic Data Center reported the highest global average of land and ocean temperatures since the center began keeping records in 1880.

“By doing that, all of a sudden it takes that raw data and makes it more personal for people,” Calkins said. “And when you can really see a picture of it, you say ‘my goodness, look at that it is a problem,’ and it keeps the belief going.”

Calkins says the effort should be prepared to lose momentum post-march.

“The real issue is how do you keep it going, year after year, because this isn’t a problem that you solve one time and then you’re done,” Calkins said. “It’s sort of an ongoing challenge for all of us.”

Calkins says interest in climate change peaked in the mid-2000s, but lost steam in the last few years. Pointing to the success of public health campaigns for breast cancer and the ALS ice bucket challenge, he says climate change falters because advocates struggle to explain why it matters on a deeper level.

“When you have a disease, and there’s some diseases that sort of lend themselves perfectly to engagement, there people see it,” Calkins said. “They say ‘I know somebody who has this and so it matters a ton. Unless they consistently make it relevant for people, it’s going to be tough to keep people fired up over time.”

Confusion over what people can actually do to combat climate change is another issue. Most people agree with the primary point that climate change is a problem and and needs to be addressed, but Calkins says it’s the secondary point of what action individuals can take that remains unclear.

“There’s this goal to get a lot of action going, and the challenge is that progress is likely to come in little steps,” Calkins said. “The risk in that is you don’t want people to get discouraged.”

Beyond the Climate March, Calkins predicts the movement will be around for years. But for those involved, he says the biggest challenge will be keeping the issues at the front of peoples’ minds.

“The problem today that people get all excited about something, but then they very quickly move on,” Calkins said. “The digital world we are in encourages that, because there’s so many things that pop up that distract everybody.”

Updated Sept. 24, 2014: This story was changed to correct the spelling of the name of professor Tim Calkins.

Mallory Black covers water, energy and the environment as WBEZ’s Front and Center reporting intern. Follow her @mblack47.

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