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

Freedman: Climate Change Low on Public Agenda

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  |  11:00 AM ET, 03/31/2008

Categories:  Freedman, Freedman, Freedman

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