Apocalypse Fatigue: Losing the Public on Climate Change

Even as the climate science becomes more definitive, polls show that public concern in the United States about global warming has been declining. What will it take to rally Americans behind the need to take strong action on cutting carbon emissions?

Last month, the Pew Research Center released its latest poll of public
attitudes on global warming. On its face, the news was not good: Belief
that global warming is occurring had declined from 71 percent
in April of 2008 to 56 percent in October - an astonishing drop in just
18 months. The belief that global warming is human-caused declined from
47 percent to 36 percent.

While some pollsters questioned these numbers, the Pew statistics
are consistent with the findings by Gallup in March that public concern
about global warming had declined, that the number of Americans who
believed that news about global warming was exaggerated had increased,
and that the number of Americans who believed that the effects of
global warming had already begun had declined.

The reasons offered for these declines are as varied as opinion about
climate change itself. Skeptics say the gig is up: Americans have
finally figured out that global warming is a hoax. Climate activists
blame skeptics for sowing doubts about climate science. Pew's Andrew
Kohut, who conducted the survey, says it's (mostly) the economy,
stupid. And some folks have concluded that Americans, with our high
levels of disbelief in evolution, are just too stupid or too
anti-science to sort it all out.

The truth is both simpler and more complicated. It is simpler in the
sense that most Americans just aren't paying a whole lot of attention.
Between being asked about things like whether they would provide CPR to save
the life of a pet (most pet owners say yes ) or whether they would
allow their child to be given the swine flu vaccine (a third of parents
say no), pollsters occasionally get around to asking Americans what
they think about global warming. When they do, Americans find a variety
of ways to tell us that they don't think about it very much at all.

Three years after it seemed that "An Inconvenient Truth" had changed
everything, it turns out that it didn't. The current Pew survey is the latest in a series of studies
suggesting that Al Gore probably had a good deal more effect upon elite opinion than public opinion.

Public opinion about global warming, it turns out, has been remarkably
stable for the better part of two decades, despite the recent decline
in expressed public confidence in climate science. Roughly two-thirds
of Americans have consistently told pollsters that global warming is
occurring. By about the same majority, most Americans agree that global
warming is at least in part human-caused, with this majority roughly
equally divided between those believing that warming is entirely caused
by humans and those who believe it to be a combination of human and
natural causes. And about the same two-thirds majority has consistently
supported government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions since

This would be good news for action to address climate change if most
Americans felt very strongly about the subject. Unfortunately, they
don't. Looking back over 20 years, only about 35 to 40 percent of the
U.S. public worry about global warming "a great deal," and only about
one-third consider it a "serious personal threat." Moreover, when asked
in open-ended formats to name the most serious problems facing the
country, virtually no Americans volunteer global warming. Even other
environmental problems, such as air and water pollution, are often
rated higher priorities by U.S. voters than global warming, which is
less visible and is experienced less personally than many other

What is arguably most remarkable about U.S. public opinion on global
warming has been both its stability and its inelasticity in response to
new developments, greater scientific understanding of the problem, and
greater attention from both the media and politicians. Public opinion
about global warming has remained largely unchanged through periods of intensive
media attention and periods of neglect, good economic times and bad,
the relatively activist Clinton years and the skeptical Bush years. And
majorities of Americans have, at least in principle, consistently
supported government action to do something about global warming even
if they were not entirely sold that the science was settled, suggesting
that public understanding and acceptance of climate science may not be
a precondition for supporting action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The more complicated questions have to do with why. Why have Americans
been so consistently supportive of action to address climate change yet
so weakly committed? Why has two decades of education and advocacy
about climate change had so little discernible impact on public
opinion? And why, at the height of media coverage and publicity about
global warming in the years after the release of Gore's movie, did
confidence in climate science actually appear to decline?

Political psychology can help us answer these questions. First, climate
change seems tailor-made to be a low priority for most people. The
threat is distant in both time and space. It is difficult to visualize.
And it is difficult to identify a clearly defined enemy. Coal
executives may deny that global warming exists, but at the end of the
day they're just in it for a buck, not hiding in caves in Pakistan
plotting new and exotic ways to kill us.

Second, the dominant climate change solutions run up against
established ideologies and identities. Consider the psychological
concept of "system justification." System justification theory builds
upon earlier work on ego justification and group justification to
suggest that many people have a psychological need to maintain a
positive view of the existing social order, whatever it may be. This
need manifests itself, not surprisingly, in the strong tendency to
perceive existing social relations as fair, legitimate, and desirable,
even in contexts in which those relations substantively disadvantage
the person involved.

Many observers have suggested that Gore's leading role in the global
warming debate has had much to do with the rising partisan polarization
around the issue. And while this almost certainly has played a part, it
is worth considering that there may be other significant psychological
dynamics at play as well.

Dr. John Jost, a leading political psychologist at New York University,
recently demonstrated that much of the partisan divide on global
warming can be explained by system justification theory. Calls for
economic sacrifice, major changes to our lifestyles, and the immorality
of continuing "business as usual" - such as going on about the business
of our daily lives in the face of looming ecological catastrophe - are
almost tailor-made to trigger system justification among a substantial
number of Americans.

Combine these two psychological phenomena - a low sense of imminent
threat (what psychologists call low-threat salience) and system
justification - and what you get is public opinion that is highly
resistant to education or persuasion. Most Americans aren't alarmed
enough to pay much attention, and efforts to raise the volume simply trigger system-justifying
responses. The lesson of recent years would appear to be that
apocalyptic threats - when their impacts are relatively far off in the
future, difficult to imagine or visualize, and emanate from everyday
activities, not an external and hostile source - are not easily
acknowledged and are unlikely to become priority concerns for most
people. In fact, the louder and more alarmed climate advocates become
in these efforts, the more they polarize the issue, driving away a
conservative or moderate for every liberal they recruit to the cause.

These same efforts to increase salience through offering increasingly
dire prognosis about the fate of the planet (and humanity) have also
probably undermined public confidence in climate science. Rather than
galvanizing public demand for difficult and far-reaching action,
apocalyptic visions of global warming disaster have led many Americans
to question the science. Having been told that climate science demands
that we fundamentally change our way of life, many Americans have, not
surprisingly, concluded that the problem is not with their lifestyles
but with what they've been told about the science. And in this they are
not entirely wrong, insofar as some prominent climate advocates, in
their zeal to promote action, have made representations about the state
of climate science that go well beyond any established scientific
consensus on the subject, hyping the most dire scenarios and most
extreme recent studies, which are often at odds with the consensus of
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

These factors predate but appear to have been exacerbated by recession.
Pew's pollster Kohut points to evidence indicating that the recession
has led many Americans to prioritize economic over environmental
concerns and that this in turn has probably
translated into greater skepticism about the scientific basis for
environmental action. But notably, both the Pew and Gallup data show
that the trend of rising skepticism about climate science and declining
concern about global warming significantly predate the financial
crisis. Pew found that from July 2006 to April 2008, prior to the
recession, belief that global warming was occurring declined from 79
percent to 71 percent and belief that global warming was a very or
somewhat serious problem declined from 79 percent to 73 percent. Gallup
found that the percentage of Americans who believed that news of global
warming was exaggerated rose from 30 percent in March of 2006 to 35
percent in March of 2008. So while these trends have accelerated over
the last 18 months, they were clearly present in prior years.

Perhaps we should give the American public a little more credit. They
may not know climate science very well, but they are not going to be
muscled into accepting apocalyptic visions about our planetary future -
or embracing calls to radically transform "our way of life" - just
because environmentalists or climate scientists tell them they must.
They typically give less credit to expert opinion than do educated
elites, and those of us who tend to pay more attention to these
questions would do well to remember that expert opinion and indeed,
expert consensus, has tended to have a less sterling track record than
most of us might like to admit.

At the same time, significant majorities of Americans are still
prepared to support reasonable efforts to reduce carbon emissions even
if they have their doubts about the science. They may be disinclined to
tell pollsters that the science is settled, just as they are not
inclined to tell them that evolution is more than a theory. But that
doesn't stop them from supporting the teaching of evolution in their
schools. And it will not stop them from supporting policies to reduce
carbon emissions - so long as the costs are reasonable and the
benefits, both economic and environmental, are well-defined.

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