Comments Off on Getting Climate Change Off the Back Burner—or the Limits of Yelling ‘Shark!’

This past week—in honor of Earth Day—there’s been a lot of soul-searching about why public concern about climate change is declining despite scientists’ increasingly urgent warnings about the consequences of inaction. Politically, of course, action is stalled in Washington, and given the fight over the federal deficit it’s not clear the government will even hang onto the initiatives it has. An article in the New Republic cheekily asked whether the “green movement [has] been a miserable flop”?

Only about half of Americans (53 percent) see climate change as a very or somewhat serious threat to them and their families, and the level of concern has dropped by 10 points in just the last few years. It would be tempting to blame America’s culture of empty-headed reporting, ineffective public education, and shallow political debate, but concern about climate change has fallen in Western Europe too—by exactly the same 10 points, to about 56 percent. So it’s not just us.

Sometimes scientists and environmentalists talk about public engagement on climate as if this was the movie Jaws, with Richard Dreyfuss as a hyperactive marine biologist. He’s clearly right about the shark being dangerous, and he’s backed up by the police chief. But they’re both blocked by the local mayor, who is everything people imagine a small town booster to be, right down to his loud sport jackets. Finally, Dreyfuss yells at the mayor, “I think that I am familiar with the fact that you are going to ignore this particular problem until it swims up and bites you on the ass!”  That pretty much sums up the frustration of a lot of climate scientists right now.

But some of the lack of attention is understandable. The country does have other urgent problems like, for example, the worst economic climate in decades. In surveys, economic worries blow away nearly every other priority (51 percent say the economy’s the most important problem in the CBS/New York Times poll—everything else is in single digits. Faced with the possibility of losing your job and not being able to pay your bills, people may just have less energy to worry about climate change.  It’s like trying to raise the alarm about a shark attack in the middle of an earthquake: the immediate problem is more pressing.

But it’s also true that much of the public remains fundamentally uninformed on key aspects of the issue. Based on surveys by Public Agenda, only about a quarter (24 percent) of the American public could be considered “greens”—focused on the environment, knowledgeable about about it, and supporting change to protect it. Meanwhile, about 17 percent of the public qualifies as “climate change doubters.” Everyone else—over half of Americans—is somewhere in the middle . Lack of information about basic facts is rampant: 4 in 10 Americans can’t name a fossil fuel; half can’t name a renewable energy source either.

At the same time, large swaths of Americans are open to many ideas that would nudge the country in a better direction, and for some reason, the environmental movement hasn’t’ been able to build on this base of support. For example, 86 percent of Americans say that investing in alternative energy will create many new jobs. Nearly that many support more investment in fuel-efficient railways; tax rebates to individuals who reduce energy use; rebates to businesses who reduce energy use; higher gas-mileage requirements for cars (50 percent strongly). Three-quarters say that developers should be required to build more energy-efficient homes.  That’s actually not a bad start.

Even more important, people’s support for alternative fuels doesn’t seem to be driven (if you’ll excuse us) solely by angst over gas prices. In 2009, 73 percent of Americans rejected the statement that “if we get gas prices to drop and stay low, we don’t need to be worried about finding alternative sources of energy.” More than half of those surveyed (53 percent) said they disagreed “strongly.”

So what should those who understand the peril of climate change do and say now to get more Americans on board? We’ve had decades on consciousness-raising and pointing with justified alarm, which obviously hasn’t worked.

We actually have a modest proposal based on Public Agenda’s research into how people learn about complex issues, and strangely perhaps, it means talking less about climate change science, and more about energy and the economy. We think it appeal to a broad base of Americans, whether they’re fully convinced on climate change or not.

Here’s what we need to put on the table for the American public. The United States is overwhelmingly dependent on a few types of fuel that, in addition to causing global warming, are almost certain to get more expensive due to growing world demand. This is not a very good place for our country to be. The International Energy Agency, the multinational organization that worries about these problems, has bluntly declared that “the age of cheap oil is over.” More and more people around the world will be competing with us to buy these fuels, and that will drive up prices. The United States itself doesn’t actually have much of them—about 2.4 percent of the world’s known oil reserves and 3.4 percent of its natural gas. What’s more, using them contributes  to global warming.

So we need to figure out how to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and develop a more diversified and renewable energy supply.

It would be nice if more people understood the science behind global warming, but they don’t need to in order to grasp this major risk to our country’s economy and our energy supply. They just need to recognize that the age of fossil fuels is passing, and that’s it’s time to move on. Everything that we’ve seen in the opinion research suggests that millions of Americans are predisposed to listen if scientists, environmentalists and policymakers are ready to make the case.