Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
Question: Has the massive oil spill in the Gulf changed public opinion about the environment?
Matthew Nisbet: Well I think, you know, there is a couple very important dimensions to consider here. We haven’t seen a lot of change in public opinion about climate change, in part because of the downturn in the economy we’re at an ebb in terms of public enthusiasm for action on climate change and concern over climate change and that is somewhat part of a natural cycle that you see on social problems generally and on environmental problems. Sort of the height of concern about climate change was around 2007, with the release of "An Inconvenient Truth"and a record amount of news attention to that issue. But it’s almost as if the public became habituated or used or desensitized to a lot of stories and the narratives about environmental impacts and environmental disaster that were at the… really strongly featured around that time. And with the performance of the economy we started moving into a downward cycle of concern.
So the oil spill hasn’t really changed or shifted that period that we’re in right now in terms of almost issue fatigue with climate change, but what we have seen is a major change in public opinion when it comes to asking the public about weighing the importance of either economic growth or energy exploration with the need for environmental protection or conservation. Between the month before, according to Gallup polls, the month before the oil spill and then roughly a month and a half afterwards we saw that a majority of the public literally reversed course—that before the oil spill a majority of the public favored energy exploration and economic development over environmental protection. Six weeks later that public preference had flipped. And I think that is something that has been overlooked in the discussion. There has been a lot of blame on the administration and on environmental groups for not taking advantage of this major focusing event, but in fact, I think there has been a lot of the news… the news attention has done the work for environmental groups and has opened an opportunity at least a latent sentiment to think about environmental protection over economic growth even in this period of economic recession.
Recorded on July 28, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman