Little Change in Public Concern over Global Warming
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."
As I have argued in talks and articles over the past year, the communication challenge on global warming is to create the public opinion environment where meaningful policy action can take place. This means shaping public perceptions so that global warming is considered a top tier political priority.
Until Congressional members start to see the issue showing up in polls as a perceived priority and until they start to hear more of a diverse public voice on the matter, Congress will have little incentive to make the tough political choices and trade-offs that are needed.
The communication challenge, however, remains daunting. As Pew reported in January of this year, global warming continues to rank dead last among 22 issues as a top political priority and even among Democrats, fewer than a majority (47%) rate the issue as a major political concern.
The absence of public opinion pressure on policymakers is confirmed in the latest Gallup survey released today, part of the organization's annual survey reports released on Earth Day.
[In a recent journal article, I combined several of these decades long Gallup trends with similarly worded questions from more than a dozen other survey organizations. The article provides the most complete picture of public opinion shifts on global warming over the past 20 years with these latest Gallup findings adding to that picture.]
As Gallup summarizes:
Despite the enormous attention paid to global warming over the past several years, the average American is in some ways no more worried about it than in years past. Americans do appear to have become more likely to believe global warming's effects are already taking place and that it could represent a threat to their way of life during their lifetimes. But the American public is more worried about a series of other environmental concerns than about global warming, and there has been no consistent upward trend on worry about global warming going back for two decades. Additionally, only a little more than a third of Americans say that immediate, drastic action is needed in order to maintain life as we know it on the planet.
As I recently posted, solving this perceptual gridlock on global warming will take a fundamental shift in communication strategy.