Is climate change too academic?

Here’s an issue that, I think, says a lot about the challenges facing anyone campaigning or trying to move policy on climate change. Gallup’s annual tracker on climate change has a set of answers which suggests that climate change continues to be seen as a relatively abstract issue, and not something that affects people’s lives in a tangible way.

First, to the numbers. The Gallup poll asked Americans how concerned they are about various environmental issues, covering pollution, biodiversity loss, and global warming. Of all the issues polled, global warming provoked the lowest level of concern (fieldwork March 2009):

For anyone who thinks that global warming/climate change is the greatest environmental threat to human development, these results should be quite worrying. They suggest that the seriousness of climate change is not very well understood in comparison with more proximate threats like pollution. As the basis for public campaigns about climate change, that is not very helpful.

Why should global warming be so far down the list, given the extent of coverage about it in comparison with the other issues on the list (this isn’t to assert that climate change receives an appropriate amount of coverage – simply that it tends to receive more than other environmental issues)? I think two factors are driving this.

Firstly, though climate change receives a lot of coverage in the media, it is typically discussed in terms that are large-scale and non-proximate (I mean this both in terms of time and distance). Simply put, it is not talked about as something that affects, or will affect, those people who are seeing the reports. In comparison with water pollution, it is a distant and complex issue – essentially an academic concern that, while people know they should be worried about, they don’t engage with it at an emotional level; it’s not like throwing an empty Coke can in a river.

To me, this seems like an avoidable problem. The science of climate change is of course complex, but so are the processes involved in breaking down an aluminium can. There’s no inherent reason why climate change can’t be framed in a way that makes the link to human health more instinctively tangible.

The second factor I think driving this is the politicisation of the issue. We saw last week that climate change attitudes in America are strongly correlated with party affiliation. This may have a positive effect on encouraging liberals/Democrats to be more concerned about climate change. But it almost certainly hardens conservatives/Republicans against caring.  While there has long been conservative suspicion that environmental campaigns are usually a cover for governmental expansion, this seems to be particularly strong for climate change.

It was with all this in mind that I read Adam Vaughan’s coverage on the Guardian Environment Blog of a poll the London Natural History Museum has run on UK attitudes to biodiversity (sadly they don’t seem to have published their data, and there’s no mention of the research agency). They claim that the results show that only 13% of those polled know exactly what biodiversity is. In explaining this, the co-ordinator of the UK response to the International Year of Biodiversity said “climate change is a relatively easy message and the overall response is consistent – reduce carbon emissions”.

It’s not that I disagree with this argument. Climate change shouldn’t be particularly hard to communicate. But neither is protecting other species. As we saw above, talking in terms of “extinction of plants and animals” and “loss of rain forests” can attract more concern than “global warming”.  Part of what matters is how these issues are described. Biodiversity sounds pretty academic and unapproachable. And so, perhaps, does climate change.

  1. It’s a complicated problem indeed – the consequences are distal in both distance and time which makes it difficult to relate to (unlike your can in the river analogy).

    Apologies if you’ve seen this already, but the American Psychological Association have published an excellent report on things like attitudes to climate change. One section specifically covers:

    “Perceptions of global warming and climate change risks, including people’s tendency to discount the likelihood of future and remote events and the role of culture in how people conceive of and respond to risks”.

    It’s available free here: http://www.apa.org/science/about/publications/climate-change.aspx

  2. leo says:

    Thanks Martin… Interesting stuff and I think it rings true from what we see in terms of how people are reacting to climate change in relation to more tangible issues. I believe Anthony Giddens tried to claim it as his paradox…

  3. You’ve made some good points there. I did a research about the subject and I want to let you know that I noticed the majority of experts will agree with your post.

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  1. [...] there’s still work to do to show why climate change is a tangible environmental problem, though connecting with worries about an energy shortage doesn’t seem to be the [...]

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