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

Article Highlights

  • Most Americans think global warming is real.

    Tweet This

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

    Tweet This

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

    Tweet This

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.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author




Jennifer K.

What's new on AEI

In year four of Dodd-Frank, over-regulation is getting old
image Halbig v. Burwell: A stunning rebuke of a lawless and reckless administration
image Beware all the retirement 'crisis' reports
image Cut people or change how they're paid
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
  • 25
Monday, July 21, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
Closing the gaps in health outcomes: Alternative paths forward

Please join us for a broader exploration of targeted interventions that provide real promise for reducing health disparities, limiting or delaying the onset of chronic health conditions, and improving the performance of the US health care system.

Monday, July 21, 2014 | 4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Comprehending comprehensive universities

Join us for a panel discussion that seeks to comprehend the comprehensives and to determine the role these schools play in the nation’s college completion agenda.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 | 8:50 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Who governs the Internet? A conversation on securing the multistakeholder process

Please join AEI’s Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy for a conference to address key steps we can take, as members of the global community, to maintain a free Internet.

Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
Expanding opportunity in America: A conversation with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan

Please join us as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) unveils a new set of policy reforms aimed at reducing poverty and increasing upward mobility throughout America.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 6:00 p.m. – 7:15 p.m.
Is it time to end the Export-Import Bank?

We welcome you to join us at AEI as POLITICO’s Ben White moderates a lively debate between Tim Carney, one of the bank’s fiercest critics, and Tony Fratto, one of the agency’s staunchest defenders.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.