Are You Deep-in-the-Gut Worried About Climate Change? Take Our Survey.

Climate change doesn't have the emotional characteristics that make it truly deep-in-your-heart scary. Leaders will have to act anyway.

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.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.