Earth Day 2014: Why the public isn't warming to the climate change debate

Article Highlights

  • Most Americans think global warming is real.

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  • Only a quarter in Gallup’s polling say they worry a great deal about global warming.

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  • Many people see global warming as a problem for the future, not the present.

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Many environmental activists, fueled by generous support from super-wealthy Democratic donors, are vowing to make climate change a top priority in the 2014 elections and beyond.  There are several reasons they won’t be successful, but the main one may surprise you.

Let’s look first at what the 2014 polls tell us about climate change. Gallup has updated its trends in recent weeks, and several other pollsters have asked Americans how high a priority the issue should be for the President and Congress.

Most Americans think global warming is real.  There are very few climate change skeptics among us. As Gallup reported in March 2014, “The majority of Americans continue to believe that the effects of global warming are happening or will begin to happen during their lifetimes.”  More than 60 percent have given this response in every Gallup survey since the pollster first posed the question in 1997. Yet only a quarter in Gallup’s polling say they worry a great deal about it, compared to nearly six in ten who worry a lot about the economy and the deficit.  And it isn’t a top priority. In the Pew Research Center’s poll of 20 possible priorities for the President and Congress in 2014, dealing with global warming ranked second from the last.  There are four reasons they aren’t responding to alarm bells.

First, many people see global warming as a problem for the future, not the present.  Other issues, such as the sluggish economy, are of more immediate concern to larger numbers of people. For most people, there have been few tangible manifestations of global warming. Polls over the past several decades show that people are usually most concerned about environmental problems they can see in their back yards.

Second, the media is not as trusted, in general and on environmental issues, as it once was. When the environment emerged as a powerful issue in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the media had more credibility.  That has changed. Journalists’ penchant for hyperbole – who can forget Time’s overheated tag line for its April 2006 cover story on global warming, “Be Worried, Be Very Worried – Earth at the Tipping Point” – has also damaged credibility.  In Gallup’s 2014 question, 42 percent of Americans said the seriousness of global warming was generally exaggerated in the news, 33 percent said it was generally correct, and 23 percent generally underestimated.

Third, most people alive today grew up with the environmental movement.  We’re all environmentalists now, and it is hard to make a political issue out of a commitment shared by almost all of us.

But the most important reason climate change isn’t resonating in our view is due to the way public opinion evolves in a democracy. When Americans agree on the ends policy should serve, they tend to pull away from discussions of the means by which those ends will be secured.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s, we as a society decided that a clean and healthful environment was important to us and that we were willing to spend a lot of money to achieve it. We’ve done that and had much success. Americans think they have been heard on the issue and now they will let politicians, interest groups, and others in Washington take over to determine exactly what kind of legislation is needed to ensure continued progress. Americans have neither the time nor the knowledge to get involved in complex debates about warming. They aren’t indifferent, but they are inattentive.  Their neglect is benign, a backhanded compliment to representative democracy, an indication of confidence in the process.  Lobbyists, climate activists and others can’t pack their bags and go home. The debates in Washington will remain as intense as ever. Interest groups will claim public opinion is in their corner in terms of how to respond to global warming, but the wording of poll questions on complex hypothetical policy choices often determines the answers. In many states, people haven’t agreed on the ends environmental policy should serve so the politics are more potent at the state level.  But nationally, most Americans will be on the sidelines.

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Jennifer K.

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