Yet another survey of public opinion about climate change has confirmed what was already well-understood. Most people believe that the climate is changing. Fewer, roughly half, think humans have anything to do with it. And overwhelmingly, people aren’t all that worried.
Before discussing this new survey, may I invite you to participate in a mini-survey on climate change. It has only one question, and requires only a simple Yes or No answer. But by itself, this survey will explain the lack of serious public concern about such an enormous threat to life on earth as we know it. Can you name one way that climate change is seriously, negatively, going to harm you or your family, personally, in the next five years? Or, more simply put:
I’ve been asking that question for several years wherever I speak, or teach, or just whenever the issue of climate change comes up in conversation. Even among the most devout environmentalists, few people answer "Yes." Few people can identify even one way that climate change is going to seriously, negatively, personally threaten them in the near future. And without that — without making people feel a sense of being personally and imminently in danger ... no risk evokes significant concern.
As I have written again and again, climate change does not evoke that kind of worry. Do you wake up in the morning and check the climate report? No, you check the local weather. Do you check the weather for the year 2050 or the year 2100? Of course not. You check it for today — for right now. Do you check on how polar bears are doing, or whether your mobile phone battery is charged up enough to last for the day? Here, and now, is where we live. We don’t think, or feel, globally. We don’t worry about others as much as we worry about ourselves. And we don’t worry about the future as much as we worry about the immediate. After all, we have to get through today before we need to worry about tomorrow.
So it is no wonder that the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey tells only what many previous surveys (the most informative repository of which is at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, which has this great graphic summary) have already confirmed. Concern about an immense threat to life on earth as we know it is mild, far short of the level necessary to get people to act, or vote, or campaign, or change their lifestyles much. In our hearts — and risk is a matter of how we FEEL, not just a matter of the facts alone — climate change is more of an idea than a danger.
The new survey, conducted just after Pope Francis visited the U.S., found
+ 65 percent believe climate change is happening.
+ 51 percent think it is either entirely or mostly human-caused.
+ 35 percent believe the causes are half human, half natural.
+ 10 percent believe the causes are mostly or all natural.
+ 8 percent are extremely worried.
+ 14 percent are very worried.
+ 34 percent are moderately worried.
+ 22 percent are not too worried.
+ 17 percent aren’t worried at all.
The AP story on their joint survey (by friend Seth Borenstein) perfectly captures the conundrum with the comments of “Linda Gebel, a 64-year-old retired bookkeeper who lives north of Minneapolis, (who) has read up on global warming.
"Everybody's life would be totally disrupted," Gebel said. "It will cause famines and wars, huge problems. I don't know why people wouldn't be worried about it."
And yet because she lives in the middle of the country — joking that she'll be "the last one who will be submerged" — Gebel added she doesn't "feel worried personally. I'm not sure this is going to happen in my lifetime...”
There is the problem, in a nutshell. Her worry is intellectual. In her gut, she’s not concerned climate change is going to happen to her — soon.
Only, this is not the problem that many people lament. Yes, major changes are needed, especially to the way we manufacture energy, and political support would make it easier to accomplish those changes. But such support is not required. Big changes are already happening. Cities, states, and nations are committing to significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Major corporations are committing billions to investments in renewable energy and sustainable operations. (Google is carbon neutral. There is no carbon footprint for all those YouTube cat videos.) Markets are cropping up to put a price on carbon pollution. Even “Communist” China has announced such a free market approach, an approach resisted in the U.S. by conservatives who deny climate change not so much because the science isn’t convincing, but because they don’t like the idea of the government butting in — which will be required to address the threat — especially if it butts in on the economy.
No one thinks these changes are nearly enough. The chemical changes we have already made to the climate system — and continue to make — will almost certainly produce cataclysmic harms, harms that are already probably happening. The unusual and alarming run of extreme weather events around the world these past several years, which climate change may be causing and is almost certainly exacerbating, are just a sign of what’s to come.
But political and corporate leaders are acting, even without public concern really pushing them. Good thing too, because climate change just does not have the psychological characteristics that will make it feel scary enough, in time, for public pressure to play a significant role in driving solutions. We really have to hope that despite public complacency, and the Tragedy of the Commons inherent human tendency to put personal interests ahead of the common good, that our leaders can find the courage, and wisdom, to do what’s necessary to minimize how bad things are going to get.
IMAGE: PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 20: A participant walks in front of a poster during the 'Business and Climate Summit 2015' at the UNESCO headquarters on May 20, 2015 in Paris, France; 200 days before the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, the May 20-21 Business & Climate Summit provides a unique forum for business and government leaders to demonstrate bold action, adopt forward-looking strategies and call for ambitious policies that will allow to scale up solutions. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)
David Ropeik is an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. He runs a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk and was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which he was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.