U.S. Public Still Unconvinced on Climate Change

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Greenland ice sheetFewer U.S. citizens consider climate change to be a "serious threat" compared to two years ago, even as scientific evidence demonstrates that the problem has become increasingly severe, according to a recent nationwide public opinion poll.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey suggests that climate change campaigns are not adequately explaining the latest science to an audience that needs to reduce emissions substantially in order for the world to avoid the most damaging effects of global warming.

The survey, conducted between September 30 and October 4 among a sample of 1,500 telephone respondents, suggests that 65 percent of the U.S. public considers climate change to be a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" problem. The results mark a decline in public concern from January 2007, when 77 percent of participants told a Pew survey that they were seriously concerned about climate change.

The difference could be a matter of statistics. However, U.S. residents have been subjected to many confusing messages this year from conservative media, fossil fuel-dependent industries, and politicians who question the scientific certainty of climate change. The rise in contrarian voices coincides with the passage of a cap-and-trade bill by the U.S. House of Representatives and consideration of similar legislation by the Senate.

Intense political debate, coupled with colder weather in recent months, may have led to the increased doubt about the climate science, said Riley Dunlap, an environmental sociologist at Oklahoma State University.

"We're starting to see the effect of this constant barrage of [climate change] denial penetrating society," Dunlap said. "There is a constant belittling of climate change."

The latest peer-reviewed science, meanwhile, indicates that many dangers associated with climate change are occurring more rapidly than previous studies predicted. Glacial retreat, ice sheet melt, and sea-level rise are intensifying, according to a recent U.N. Environment Programme report.

During a recent trip to Washington, D.C., UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner acknowledged that climate science will always include levels of uncertainty, but that the science clearly supports taking action to reduce emissions now.

"There is no issue on this planet for which we have perfect knowledge," said Steiner, who added that imperfection should not be confused with doubt. "In the absence of perfect knowledge and perfect certainty, people create a sense of uncertainty. That is dangerous."

Still, climate change denial "counterattack" efforts been unable to convince much of the U.S. public, despite growing support for emissions reductions worldwide, Dunlap said.

"In the public mind, the science definitely isn't settled," Dunlap said. "Environmental groups and environmental funders need to take note of that and adjust their strategy and tactics accordingly."

In what is perhaps a silver lining to the Pew survey, the results suggest that half of the U.S. public supports a limit on greenhouse gas emissions, even if higher energy prices result. A majority also said that the United States should join other countries in setting standards to address climate change.

While support for climate legislation may be evenly split across the United States, members of Congress are receiving more phone calls from constituents who oppose such measures than from supporters, according to David Foster, executive director of the Blue Green Alliance, a partnership of U.S. labor unions and environmental groups.

U.S. environmental organizations are conducting countrywide campaigns to increase support for climate legislation, but these efforts appear to be inadequate, Foster said.

"There is a tendency for those who believe in climate legislation to think that it should carry the day by itself rather than politically organize to assure that it does carry the day," Foster said. "We've been reluctant to get into the fray in a way that we have to be."

Environmental campaigns such as television advertisements or posters are unlikely to provide clarity to the complicated dimensions of climate science. Instead, the public needs more detailed explanations of climate change, its global effects, and options for mitigation, said Netra Chhetri, a geography professor at Arizona State University and contributing author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 assessment report.

The World Wide Views on Global Warming project sought to provide such education. The first global effort to gauge public opinion on a specific issue, the project involved roughly 4,400 people from 44 locations in 38 countries. Participants were provided with educational material during a day-long information session last month, and some received financial compensation for their time.

The results, released last week, suggest that more aggressive action to reduce emissions would be embraced with popular support in both developing and industrialized countries, including the United States.

The U.S. data, gathered from sessions held in five separate cities, correspond closely with data from other countries. In response to a question about climate change concern, for instance, 95 percent of U.S. respondents said they were "very" or "fairly" concerned. Worldwide, 90 percent of respondents provided the same response, on average.

"If the public is made aware of the facts, without any media hype, across the globe they more or less think similarly when it comes to climate and the environment," said Chhetri, who helped manage a study group in Phoenix, Arizona.

The World Wide Views project is not the same as a poll, Dunlap said. It is, however, an effective method of spreading climate education to a wide audience.

"That kind of approach beats the heck out of just running ads to get public attention," Dunlap said. "But unless you're able to do that in hundreds of communities across the country, it's unlikely to have an impact on public support for climate change policies."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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