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Friday, March 14, 2014

Why Are Americans Not More Worried About Climate Change?

One of the most interesting, and to many most important, public opinion puzzles of our time is the evidence that the American public simply does not share a sense of urgency or a perception of the need for urgent action on the issue of climate change.

The data on this are pretty clear, at least at the surface level. Our recent report on how worried Americans are about a list of 15 issues shows that the quality of the environment and climate change were only one away from the bottom of the list. Almost no one mentions the environment or climate change in response to our question asking them to name the most important problem facing the country. Our continuing surveys show that Americans rate global warming as the least worrisome of a list of environmental problems (pollution of drinking water is at the top of the list). Other research organizations and surveys show the same low priority for global warming when it comes to what the government should be focusing on.

This is puzzling to many people who believe that global warming is one of the most important issues facing humankind. Over two dozen U.S. senators spent March 11 in the U.S. Senate Chamber in a “talkathon” designed to call attention to climate change and to urge Congress to pass more legislation dealing with the issue. As The New York Times reported: “Climate caucus members say their objective is to raise the urgency of global warming and build toward a time when the political landscape may have shifted enough that a bill could pass.” Former Vice President Al Gore has devoted a good deal of his recent public life focusing on what he considers to be the looming disaster that will result if nothing is done about global warming, calling it the “greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.” Others say that climate change “...may be one of the greatest threats facing the planet.” The U.N. Secretary General has called it “the major, overriding environmental issue of our time, and the single greatest challenge facing environmental regulators. It is a growing crisis with economic, health and safety, food production, security, and other dimensions.”

So, why do Americans basically not think of climate change when they are asked to discuss problems facing the country? Why do they say they don’t worry about climate change when asked about it specifically, and why do they rank it as a low priority for their elected representatives? That’s the fascinating question. We’re not talking directly here about the so-called “deniers,” but rather people who may even well agree that global warming is taking place, but who simply don’t put a high priority on doing something about it, or actively worry about it. Certainly we don't see Americans giving climate change the type of priority it should have according to Al Gore and many others who are convinced that this is the most significant issue facing the planet.

A lot has been written about this, but it’s worth reviewing some of the possible reasons why the public -- taken as a whole -- appears to be so blasé. 

1. The crisis is not right at hand and isn't affecting people directly. Issues like polluted drinking water affect people much more directly than the possible future implications of global warming. Some have responded to this by advancing the viewpoint that recent extremes in weather in all directions -- hurricanes, drought, colder weather, snow and ice -- are actually manifestations of climate change. But a recent analysis by my colleague Jeff Jones shows that even those who perceive the temperature extremes, and who perceive extreme drought conditions (mainly in the West), are more likely to attribute these weather anomalies to normal variations rather than as the result of global warming.  

2. Some may find it hard to worry about global warming in a season such as we have just gone through in which temperatures were in fact colder than usual. If it's global warming, why are things getting colder?

3. The fact that the potential dangers of global warming are postulated by scientists and others but not directly observable could put this in the realm of a more belief- or faith-based issue, on which one has to accept the received wisdom of others rather than rely on one's own senses. Hence, Americans look to their “faith leaders” in these things, or in other words, political commentators, pundits, and political leaders. As a result, climate change has become a political issue, with a divergence in the attitudes of conservatives and Republicans from liberals and Democrats over the last decade or so. In other words, a sizable segment of the population as defined by political criteria is less likely to rate climate change as a priority, meaning that mathematically the population as a whole is less likely to show concern. Why this political polarization on climate change has occurred is a complex question, of course (as is the explanation for why many issues or causes become politicized). One logical explanation focuses on the fact that attempts to take action on climate change most often involve major big government actions and programs, which are not highly favored by those to the right of the political spectrum. Other explanations focus on the fact that the leading proponents of the urgency of climate change as a problem tend to be Democrats, including most prominently former Democratic vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. Perhaps Republicans simply find it difficult to buy into a cause that has so much liberal and Democratic support. And, for whatever reason, the issue became one which was publicly viewed negatively by conservative media figures and conservative media channels, and thus that position became more likely to be adopted by those who listen and watch those channels.

4. There is a cluster of explanations focusing on the lack of perceived personal efficacy on this issue. Americans may assume there is nothing to be done about global warming (even if they think it is real and will result in the end of civilization as we know it), so why worry about it? Or, some have argued that Americans may find it too depressing to think about the end of humankind as we know it, and therefore they reduce cognitive dissonance by driving the thought of global warming out of their minds.  

5. Americans may believe that if other problems aren’t fixed first (economy, jobs, dysfunctional government) the effects of global warming won’t matter. In other words, Americans prioritize these short-term problems because if they don’t have a job, don’t have food to put on the table, or become homeless, they just won’t care as much if there are major changes in the climate that might affect them.

6. Americans may perceive that they won’t personally be affected by climate change, even if its effects do begin to accelerate. One big scare comes from those who say that a rising ocean level will inundate those living on the coast. NOAA estimates, in fact, that 39% of Americans live in a county that is on an ocean shoreline. In and of itself that leaves the majority of Americans who don’t live on the shoreline and therefore wouldn’t be directly affected by rising ocean levels that some predict will be one result of global warming. Plus, many who do live in shore counties may not be low lying enough that they feel they would be affected by rising waters. Los Angeles County is on the ocean, for example, but some residents of that county live in Palmdale, which is inland and over the mountains in the desert, while other residents of Los Angeles County live up in hills and mountains, which would not be subsumed by rising ocean levels. 

7. From a different perspective, it may be that many Americans who are older believe that the major effects of global warming will occur after they have left this mortal coil, so why worry about it now?

8. Americans have seen other prophecies of doom come and go, and the species is still standing. One of the most interesting of these was the fear engendered by the “population bomb” in the 1960s. Paul Ehrlich, among others, gave dire warnings that there would be widespread famine by the 1970s and many in Great Britain starving to death by 2000. Before Ehrlich, many other big thinkers talked about how quickly the population would overcome the earth’s ability to feed it, with disastrous outcomes -- none of which have yet come to fruition. Many remember the hypotheses that the world’s computers would cease to function at midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, because they were not programmed to handle a new century in their internal clocks. That, too, didn't happen.

9. It’s possible that public opinion researchers are not picking up concern about global warming because we aren't asking the right questions. This has been argued off and on over the years.  It is true that wording questions in certain ways can result in higher levels of expressed concern, but it is difficult to argue, no matter how opinion is measured, that Americans are anywhere near as worried about climate change as are those who are sounding the alarm think they should be.

Whatever the reasons, those who argue climate change is the top problem of our age are no doubt aghast that even now, in 2014, Americans are not more worried or concerned than they are. A lot of the efforts to raise concern levels and awareness to date have obviously not worked well. It may be that new tactics are needed. So far, however, even if it is a case of whistling past the graveyard, Americans are clearly more focused on other issues.


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