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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 03/31/2008

Freedman: Climate Change Low on Public Agenda

By Andrew Freedman

The American public does not view global climate change as a top tier problem facing the country today, according to a recent Gallup poll. The poll found that "the economy in general" topped the list, followed by the Iraq War and about two dozen other issues, including "lack of money," which is a vague concern but is probably my own biggest problem right now. Only one percent out of the 1,012 American adults surveyed said that the environment/pollution is the country's most important problem.

At first glance, these results might be sufficient to send anyone with deep concern about global climate change into a state of depression. However, further reflection reveals that American attitudes towards global climate change are moving towards greater concern, rather than less, although the inherent complexities of the climate change issue make it unlikely that it will rise to the top of the list of worries anytime soon.

Eric Berger, the Houston Chronicle's science reporter, wrote on his "SciGuy" blog recently that the Gallup poll indicates that environmentalists and scientists have failed to vault climate change into the upper echelon of issues facing the United States.

"But after three years of excessive attention global warming doesn't resonate with many Americans," Berger wrote. He offered some explanations for why Americans aren't more concerned about global warming, including that "We've had a cold winter [Weather Gang readers who read Steve's post Friday know this is a misconception] and the impetus has gone out of the global warming movement."

However, Berger's interpretation assumes that it's the goal of environmentalists to vault climate change to the top spot on the list of problems for Americans to deal with, which isn't the case. Also, such interpretations of the poll run counter to the results of other recent polls that have found that in fact Americans are increasingly aware of and concerned about climate change.

For example, a 2007 Yale University/Gallup/ClearVision Institute poll found that 62 percent of Americans believe that "global warming is an urgent threat requiring immediate and drastic action."

The most recent Gallup poll does not indicate that scientists and environmentalists have failed to inform the public about the scope of the climate change threat, or that the public is not receptive to their messaging. Rather, what it signals is that certain aspects of global warming make it difficult for the issue to rise to the top of the list over other pressing problems such as economic turbulence and the Iraq War.

Climate change is an extremely complex issue that, given the structure of the current economic system, poses intangible short and long-term risks for individual households. For example, it's much more likely that people will feel the impact of the credit crunch and real estate market woes in the next year more than they will the effects of another section of Antarctic ice breaking up.

There are two major components of the climate change challenge that help to obscure the public's perception of its urgency: time lag and relevancy. These are huge hurdles that scientists, environmentalists and policymakers have to overcome in order to move towards the adoption of more climate-friendly policies.

Due to the inertia involved in the storage and transfer of heat throughout the climate system, the worst effects of climate change are not likely to be realized for many decades. However, the dynamics of the climate system also mean that if actions are not taken soon to reduce concentrations of greenhouse gases, the worst-case scenarios are much more likely to play out.

In short, the global community has a choice of whether to act now and play it safe, or act later and live dangerously. Thus far the choice has largely been for the latter, more hazardous course of action.

This may be in part because people don't understand the nature of the threat and the scope of actions required to address it. In one survey from MIT in 2002, even scientifically-literate American graduate students misunderstood fundamental aspects of addressing climate change, including by how much greenhouse gases would need to be reduced and by when, in order to stabilize the global climate. The survey found that the students' misconceptions biased the group into favoring "wait and see" policies that "violate basic laws of physics."

In addition to the relatively slow time frame involved, on the order of decades to centuries rather than weeks and months, climate change also has a relevancy problem. This issue arises because it's difficult - but not impossible - to translate how an increase in the global average surface temperature is relevant for individuals in different regions.

The relevancy hurdle was reflected in the 2007 Yale poll, which found that although they are concerned, Americans are split on just how worried they should be. In the poll, 50 percent of respondents said they personally worried about climate change a great deal or a fair amount, while the other half of respondents said they worried only a little or not at all.

"These levels of personal worry are due in part to the fact that many Americans believe global warming is a serious threat to other species, people and places far away, but not so serious of a threat to themselves, their own families, or local communities," the poll executive summary stated.

The 2007 poll did find a significant increase from 2004 in the percentage of Americans who believe that climate change was already having or would soon have "dangerous impacts on people."

The disconnect between an increasing public awareness of climate change and continuing confusion over how much concern is warranted demonstrates yet again that climate change alone may not be a sufficient motivator for the American public to support potentially expensive policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and greatly expand the use of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power. That's a big reason why environmentalists, scientists and political leaders have all seized upon energy policy as the focal point for political action on this problem. The latest Gallup poll indicates there is far more public angst over high energy prices and the "energy crisis" than there is about the environment in general.

In this time of escalating oil prices, the Iraq War, and rampant anxiety in the world financial markets, translating climate change into an energy issue to some extent makes a far-off potential threat suddenly more relatable to people's pocketbooks. Ultimately a climate friendly economy will require massive changes in the way we generate and consume energy, and as energy costs climb in today's market, consumers are already looking to take actions that are aimed at improving their bottom line. Whether they be purchasing a more fuel efficient car, using more public transportation, or installing compact fluorescent light bulbs, many of these actions that are aimed at improving consumers' bottom line through energy efficiency also happen to have climate change benefits.

To put it simply, you can't mitigate climate change without tackling energy, since climate change is caused primarily by the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. So, rather than worrying about how little Americans seem to be alarmed by climate change, it makes sense that climate change policy advocates are taking the initiative to zero in on watts of energy just as much, if not more so, than they are on degrees at this stage of the climate change policy process. I find that quite hopeful, not depressing.

Now if only I could address my own "lack of money" problem...

By Andrew Freedman  | March 31, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, News & Notes  
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I think when people start realizing that our national security and economic stability are tied to our demand for fossil fuels, they will understand why the environment should be a top priority. The candidates running for President have all begun framing the issue of global warming and the environment in this context, so its only a matter of time. Also, there is a real issue of international competition involved in our global warming struggle. You're seeing a modern-day space race where other nations are benefiting from the research, patents, education and experience coming out of America while we fall further and further behind in development of new energy technology. Exporting intellectual property is not as beneficial as exporting actual products. Its time for a 21st century Apollo Mission centered around the growth of American energy development.

Posted by: Brandon | March 31, 2008 3:58 PM | Report abuse

The political reality of this issue relates to the undeniable "selfishness" of human nature and the eternal quest for fulfillment. Most don't care whose Ox is being gored unless it is theirs. The majority begin losing enthusiam for this initiative when they realize that they will have to make sacrifices now, but probably won't live long enough to witness results, if indeed, results are ever achieved.

The bar of CO2 restriction vs. tolerable expected achievment is fluid and open to much debate.
There is also debate regarding the reasons for the global temperature change during the preceding 100 years.

The IPCC report suggests a reasonably achievable decrease after a peak before 2015, would be a 50% - 85% reduction on 2000 levels by 2050. Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama are all within this range, with their proposals, but now some are suggesting with pier reviewed studies, that this is a receipe for disaster. It is suggested that we should completely eliminate CO2 immediately! If we set our societal wheels of motion back 100 years, today, it is suggested that we would still witness a global temperature increase for the next 500 years!!

Other experts suggest that we will naturally eliminate our use of fossil fuels as a result of technological evolution during the next 25-50 years.

Still others in print or the media are constantly suggesting this to all be a lot of nonsense, that will be exposed over the next 10-20 years.

Modern day Americans, are always ready to oppose an enemy who can be identified and fought with measurable results, but otherwise lose enthusiam rather quickly. This is a simple truth, reflecting on some of our military campaigns from Vietnam to Iraq, and today's global terrorism threat.

Since most material expands and becomes more pliable when warm, perhaps with warm weather just around the corner, you will be able to stretch that dollar a little more, than during the cold, snowy winter you have endured!

Enjoyed the reading!!

Posted by: Augusta Jim | March 31, 2008 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Gasoline prices trump climate change as a BIG American priority!!!

Posted by: El Bombo | March 31, 2008 4:29 PM | Report abuse

Augusta Jim: Thanks for your comments and links. I agree that climate change is a complex issue, with a range of outcomes and choices before society that you outlined in your comment. However, I don't take as cynical of a view as you presented. You wrote: "Modern day Americans, are always ready to oppose an enemy who can be identified and fought with measurable results, but otherwise lose enthusiam rather quickly. This is a simple truth, reflecting on some of our military campaigns from Vietnam to Iraq, and today's global terrorism threat."

In my view, Americans have infinite potential to meet the climate change challenge, if political leadership is provided along with the right mix of policies to encourage clean energy development etc. I don't agree with equating Americans' stomach for dealing with climate change to Americans' resolve in supporting wars. By that logic we would have no stomach for trying to cure cancer, AIDS and other diseases that are long-term struggles, or even long-term infrastructure projects. I'd rather view Americans as mature adults, able to judge costs/benefits including long-term costs, rather than as skittish people with no resolve.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | March 31, 2008 6:18 PM | Report abuse

Well, I've been debating with myself whether I should put my oar in here--after all, we'd have a heckuva fracas on this blog if everyone jumped into the debate, and I detect considerable restraint being exercised. Anyway, I decided to add my $0.02.

The thing is, Andrew, we don't have infinite potential. We don't have infinite anything. All resources--human, capital, etc.--are finite. Why shouldn't they be prioritized for the problems about which emininent scientists do not dispute the very existence, let alone solvability?

You mention cancer and AIDS vaccine research, so I assume you consider those worthy causes. I would add as worthy causes: the fates of millions of people worldwide who have literally nothing, not even a spoon or a bowl to eat rice if anyone would give them any rice to eat; child slavery; animal abuse; environmental issues of clean water and clear air--Good Lord, the list is endless.

With a multitude of horrors facing us and limited resources to combat and correct them, it seems to me that the problems which everyone agrees are problems and are readily susceptible to solution are the ones most deserving of attention.

Posted by: tinkerbelle | March 31, 2008 8:38 PM | Report abuse


I am not being "cynical", only realistic.

You say,"if political leadership is provided along with the right mix of policies" When has this ever occurred except when going to war, if negatives were involved and truthfully revealed?, along with any positive, being generations into the future?

A possible cure for cancer exists TOMORROW, therefore Americans will support this.

If you would attempt to present the "global warming" opposition proposition campaign according to some, as a political platform, you would be defeated in a landslide!!

Americans wish for what benefits number 1.

If you don't understand this , never enter politics.

You are a very idealistic person, which is fine, but this does not win elections or political pluralities.

An overwhelming political plurality is necessary for a realistic campaign against "global warming", or will this only be a "feel good" phantom movement against reality?

Posted by: Augusta Jim | March 31, 2008 8:45 PM | Report abuse

The majority of American public, by NOT buying into the global-warming cult, is way ahead of Gore & Co.....and even some so-called "scientists" on this one. They know a hoax when they see it.

The economy and Iraq will remain the biggest issues......where they belong.

Posted by: Mike | March 31, 2008 8:51 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for your wisdom!

CANCER and AIDS are enemies that people can identify and measure success in fighting, as I referred to earlier.

Posted by: Augusta Jim | March 31, 2008 9:00 PM | Report abuse


Thanks for your two cents but what you didn't point out is that the people who don't have food or shelter etc are the ones who will be most affected by the impact of climate related events.

If you look at a lot of developing areas - the poorest people live near water, with inadequate shelter etc for extreme events. It's why so many of the absolute poorest Thai and Indonesians died in the Tsunami. Not that I am confusing that with a climate event, but you can see why storm surges, hurricanes etc will impact them the most and why we have a responsibility to take this issue as one of our highest priorities.

Cancer and AIDS research is very worthy, you'll be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't agree with that, but that doesn't make climate change and global warming less worthy of research.

Mike - as always, so illuminating. I wonder how many new jobs will be created by green industries in the next few years? My guess is that it will be thousands - how's that for an economic positive from taking this stuff seriously.

I agree with Andrew that if climate change is explained to the American people in a manner that also identifies how they can take small (money saving) steps to become personally involved, then the potential to reach these targets increases exponentially.

Posted by: Emma | March 31, 2008 10:37 PM | Report abuse

Andy Revkin at the NYT also posted a blog yesterday on the communications challenges of global climate change, focusing his attention on the massive ad campaign just launched by the Alliance for Climate Protection. Revkin makes some good points, and shows the uphill road ahead of Gore and Co. as they try to build up the demand for political action on climate change in Washington. It has a lot of relevance to what I wrote about, and to our discussion in these comments.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | April 1, 2008 12:11 AM | Report abuse

What a nice theme " target="_top">live forex charts

Posted by: Braden mydhw | April 9, 2008 12:24 PM | Report abuse

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