Pew: Global Warming Dead Last Among Public Priorities



Call it a case of extreme optimistic bias: Many climate advocates point to polls that show when the public is asked directly, a majority say they are "concerned" about global warming and favor action. But what's missing from this poll assessment is where global warming sits relative to other political priorities. When you examine this comparison, public support for action turns up as soft, even among Dems and Independents, suggesting that it will be very difficult for Obama to rally the needed public input to pass meaningful legislation through Congress.

One way to assess the strength of public resolve on the issue is to see where global warming or the environment sits in the classic open-ended question asking the public to name the most important problem facing the nation, or alternatively what the President and Congress should focus on. As I noted a few weeks ago, global warming and the environment surfaces as a top of mind priority among just 1% of respondents compared to more than 40% who say the economy.

Pew offers a different and more revealing comparison. On more than 20 issues, the polling organization asks respondents to agree or disagree whether each should be a "top priority" for the president and Congress. For the past three years, global warming has been a bottom tier issue, with fewer Americans agreeing it should be a "top priority" than most other issues. This year, in an analysis released today, as depicted above, it ranks dead last.

In the context of an economic recession and two wars, absent a shift in the polls and a surge in input from a diversity of constituents, it is unlikely over the next four years that a strong majority in Congress will make climate change a top agenda priority or be willing to take the political risk to pass major policy initiatives. Indeed, climate change threatens to become for Obama what immigration reform was for former President George W. Bush.

In 2007, the White House and leaders in Congress had reached a consensus on immigration policy and polling showed a favorable public. Yet soft majority support in the surveys could not trump the strong opinion intensity of minority opposition, especially when it was mobilized by conservative media outlets and leaders. For fence sitters in Congress, the voice of the public that was loudest--via phone calls, emails, and letters--was that of opponents to immigration reform

At his blog Dot Earth, the NY Times Andrew Revkin has additional thoughts on the climate communication challenge with more to follow in print later this week.

I have an article forthcoming that explores this communication challenge in more detail, but if you are a reader of this blog, you can guess what's at the core of my analysis. Put simply, the problem has little to do with science literacy, a lack of respect for science, poor reporting on the part of journalists, or a decline in the science beat at news organizations. Indeed, it's time to stop blaming the public, journalists, and the media.

The communication burden instead rests with political leaders, scientists, advocates, and policy experts. Only by "reframing" the relevance of climate change in ways that connect to the specific core values of key segments of the public - and repeatedly communicating these multiple meanings through a variety of trusted media sources and opinion leaders- can the Obama administration and allies generate the widespread public engagement needed to move major policy action forward. This shift in public outreach, however, will first take a re-examination of the assumptions that have traditionally informed climate change communication efforts.

it's time to turn the page on the "war on science," "inconvenient truths," and "denier" rhetoric that were battle cries for the Left during the Bush administration and 2008 election. These public accountability frame devices rally the base and appeal to emotions, but they are also likely to be re-interpreted among the wider public as just more elite rancor.

It's also time to stop focusing narrowly on remote polar impacts, looming environmental disaster, or symbols such as polar bears. These examplars are either not personally relevant enough to most audiences, are dismissed as remote and far off in the future, or easily re-framed as "alarmism" sending interpretations back into the mental box of lingering scientific uncertainty.

Not every citizen cares about the environment or defers to the authority of science, yet among climate change advocates, these mental points of reference continue to be the dominant emphasis. In order to generate widespread public support for meaningful policy action, the communication challenge is to figure out how to shift the climate change focus away from the traditional frames and devices towards a new perceptual context that resonates with the values and understanding of a specific intended audience. These new meanings for climate change are likely to be key drivers of public resolve and eventual policy action.

Last summer at Big Think (video below), I previewed this climate change communication challenge and some of the emerging new meanings that are likely to unlock public engagement. Stay tuned for more on this in an upcoming article. [Update: Video embedding at Big Think is currently down. Will repost embedded video when available]


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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.