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More Hype Equals Less Action on Climate Change

Two new surveys regarding Americans' attitudes toward climate change suggest that Americans have yet to make a personal connection to the issue.
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As Al Gore inaugurates an advertising campaign about the need to combat climate change, two new studies suggest that motivating the American public to take action will be a major challenge.

Researchers at the University of Missouri have concluded that while the public is troubled about a range of environmental issues, close-to-home concerns like clean air and water outweigh fears of global warming. Meanwhile, political scientists at Texas A&M University report people who consider themselves well informed about climate change are actually less concerned about the problem than those who admit they know little.

“There is still some uncertainty in people’s eyes about what the consequences of climate change will be,” said David Konisky, a policy research scholar at the University of Missouri’s Institute of Public Policy and an assistant professor at the Truman School of Public Affairs. “It’s not clear to people what the potential health risk may be. That part of the story has not yet been told in a way the average American is going to grab onto.”

Konisky’s national survey of 1,000 adults found that 70 percent of Americans are either “somewhat” or “very” concerned about the environment. Breaking that concern down into specific issues, however, he found some resonated much more strongly than others.

“Protecting community drinking water” got the most enthusiastic response, with 71 percent of people saying government should do more to deal with the issue. Twenty-six percent said it should do the same amount as it is doing now, and 2 percent said it should do less.

“Reducing pollution of the nation’s rivers, lakes and ecosystems” did nearly as well, with 69 percent asking for more government intervention. Sixty-four percent want more action on “reducing urban air pollution issues like smog.”

Issues that did not hit so close to home, however, attracted less support. Only 52 percent said the government should do more to protect species from extinction — still a majority, but a small one.

“It’s not surprising that people are most concerned about what is happening in their local communities — and, in particular, with things that might affect their health or the health of their family,” Konisky said. “People are most concerned about immediate risks.

“I don’t think there’s the same consensus dealing with resource conservation. There is some conservation ethic in society, but it’s not as broadly shared by everyone.”

Global warming was in the middle of the pack, with 61 percent saying government should do more to address the issue. However, 13 percent said the government should do “a lot less” on that issue — the highest such score on the entire survey, and one that suggests a sizable segment of the population considers the climate change threat to be exaggerated or fraudulent, in spite of the scientific consensus that it is a real and present danger.

Is, however, the message of concerned scientists getting through to the public, and, if so, is it spurring us to take action? That was the primary question posed by political scientists Paul M. Kellstedt, Sammy Zahran and Arnold Vedlitz at Texas A&M University, as they surveyed 1,093 Americans about their beliefs regarding climate change.

The researchers asked respondents to estimate their knowledge of the issue on a scale of 0 to 10. They then asked six questions reflecting how seriously they take the issue (including “Global warming and climate change will have a noticeably negative impact on the environment in which my family and I live”) and three measuring their personal feelings of responsibility (including “My actions to reduce the effects of global warming … will encourage others to reduce the effects of global warming through their own actions”).

The surprising result: The higher people rated themselves in terms of knowledge, the less concern they reported and the less responsibility they felt. The difference wasn’t huge — about a 0.2 percent shift on a scale of 1 to 4 — but it was consistent and statistically significant.

What on earth explains this? Vedlitz points to a variety of factors.

“Number one is that global climate change is a collective-action problem — one in which my own action is relatively insignificant, yet if nobody acts, nothing gets done,” he noted. “What we think might be happening is the people who are more informed realize this is a huge, global problem, and their own personal contribution will only have a minimal impact.”

Vedlitz also cites the issue’s daunting time frame, noting few people think in 25- or 50-year outcomes. “Remember, most politicians and businesses are short-term oriented,” he said.

He adds that Americans tend to have faith that a technological solution can and will be found for any problem.

“It’s ironic,” he said. “Scientists are waving the flag saying, ‘Get concerned! Get interested!’ One reason people are not is because of their high level of trust in scientists and engineers to fix it!”

Vedlitz and his colleagues also cite media coverage as part of the problem. Their paper notes, in spite of the fact that “the scientific consensus on global warming and climate change is remarkable,” journalists — especially on television — often treat it as “an unsettled controversy,” giving equal time to climatologists and skeptics.

“This is a major problem and a tough ethical issue for reporters,” Vedlitz said. “You want to be seen as being balanced. But presenting those two views as balanced distorts reality.”

Given that, it is entirely possible that many people who think of themselves as well informed about climate change may actually not understand the problem at all.

Taken together, the two surveys suggest that the essential message of the ecological movement — that all life on our fragile planet is interconnected, meaning everyone’s actions ultimately affect everyone else — is not really getting through.

“I think that’s right,” Konisky said. “There is some segment of the population that has internalized that, and it’s reflected in their preferences. But there are those who are more skeptical and more parochial in their concerns.”

Vedlitz calls people who have adopted that belief system adherents of the “new environmental paradigm.” Those who agreed with such statements as “The earth is like a spaceship with very limited room and resources” (a concept introduced by Buckminster Fuller) were far more likely to be concerned about global warming and take personal responsibility for helping make a difference.

That is still a minority of the population, however — around 28 percent, according to a statistician who worked with Vedlitz on the survey. So how might Mr. Gore and other environmental activists reach the rest?

“If it’s true that, as a rule, people tend to care more about things more proximate to them, talking more about potential local impacts of climate change might be an effective strategy,” Konisky said. “But you have to be careful that you don’t overstate potential outcomes because there’s a lot of uncertainty.”

“The link has not yet been made between the global problem and specific local effects,” Vedlitz agreed. “The issue is framed as ‘The earth will see a two- or three-degree temperature rise’ or ‘The earth will see a rise in sea levels.’ What’s going to happen in San Francisco or Boston or the Midwest?

“The science is not quite strong enough yet to take these global models and (use them to predict what will happen) on a local scale. This is one of the major tasks modelers are doing right now.”

Then there is the issue of political leadership. Konisky notes that, unlike the lukewarm efforts of the current U.S. administration, all three major presidential candidates have said they view climate change as a serious problem. If it is put on the national agenda by the next chief executive, and if we get into a serious discussion of its causes and consequences, “I think you would see opinions change,” he said.

“Global warming hasn’t been a public issue for nearly as long as some other environmental issues. It may just take more effort and more talking about it.”