Do Surveys This Week Show More Signs of Climate Fatigue?

Framing Science blog logo Framing Science takes a look at two recently released surveys that cover so called climate or green fatigue. According to the recent Pew poll, global warming remained the last of 20 priorities and "dealing with the U.S. energy problem" dropped as a priority, down 11 points with 49% rating it as a top priority. And according to the Yale/GMU survey, only 20% of respondent think that global warming is "important" or "very important" to them personally.


Posted Jan. 27, 2010
By Matthew C. Nisbet, Framing Science

Two surveys released this week provide more information on how
public opinion may or may not be shifting relative to climate change
and energy. I provide some highlights and quick context below on fears
over a growing "climate fatigue."

Pew: Global Warming and Energy Wane as Perceived Priorities

Earlier this week, timed to tonight's State of the Union address,
Pew released its annual survey of perceived policy priorities for the
President and Congress. As has been the case the past few years, global
warming ranked last among the more than 20 issues polled with only 28%
of Americans rating the issue as a "top priority." As Pew reports:

The percentage that now says addressing global warming
should be a top priority has fallen 10 points from 2007, when 38%
considered it a top priority. Such a low ranking is driven in part by
indifference among Republicans: just 11% consider global warming a top
priority, compared with 43% of Democrats and 25% of independents.
Protecting the environment fares somewhat better than dealing with
global warming on the public's list of priorities, though it still
falls on the lower half of the list overall. Some 44% say that
protecting the environment should be a top priority for Obama and
Congress, little changed from 2009.

Perhaps even more significantly, the Pew survey indicated a sharp
drop in the perceived priority of "dealing with the U.S. energy
problem" with 49% of Americans rating this issue as a top priority,
down 11 points from 60% in 2009. Energy now rests at about the level of
perceived priority as was the case in the years 2004 and 2005.

Over the past year, the perceived priority of energy has ebbed among
Republicans (51% in 2009 down to 43% in 2010), Democrats (66% to 56%)
and Independents (61% to 45%) alike.

As I wrote in an article at the journal Environment earlier
this year, the perceived priority of climate and energy policy–and the
opinion intensity felt by the public on these interconnected
issues–matters significantly to policy action. In the context of two
wars and an economic crisis, absent a shift in the polls and a surge in
input from a diversity of constituents, it is unlikely that a strong
majority in Congress will accept the political risks needed to pass
meaningful policy actions. Past research
shows that opinion intensity and perceived personal importance of an
issue is one of the strongest predictors of political participation
i.e. contacting elected officials, writing or calling in to news
organizations, attending local meetings, and other forms of political
activity and civic voice.

More importantly than pressure on elected officials, democratic
principles are at stake. Policies to address climate change and energy
will bear directly on the future of Americans, impacting their
pocketbooks, lifestyles, and local communities. These decisions are
therefore too significant to leave to just elected officials and
experts; citizens need to be actively involved and engaged.

Yale/GMU: Despite Fatigue, Scientists Still Dominate Public Trust

Anthony Leiserowitz and Ed Maibach were also in the field earlier this month and have released
the first look at some of the very detailed questions they asked about
climate change in a nationally representative survey. Their survey
offers a direct comparison to multiple questions that they first asked
in 2008.

According to the findings, in 2010, fewer Americans are sure that
global warming is happening, that scientists agree on the issue, are
worried about global warming, or think that it will effect them
personally.

Specific to perceived priority and opinion intensity, just 20% of
Americans feel that climate change is either extremely important (5%)
or very important (15%) to them personally, down from a combined 32% in
2008.

Importantly, however, Americans still overwhelmingly trust
scientists for information about climate change, despite the furor over
ClimateGate the past few months and voiced fears that public trust
might be damaged.

When asked "how much do you trust or distrust the following as
sources of information about climate change," 74% of Americans trust
scientists either strongly (22%) or somewhat (52%). Though this
combined figure is down slightly from 83% in 2008, on the trust index,
scientists still outrank every other societal group or individual
queried with only TV metereologists and President Obama coming close at
56% and 51% respectively.

As I wrote last week,
despite a dominant narrative on the part of many liberal commentators
that blames an "unscientific America" and a prevailing
"anti-scientific" public for societal inaction on climate change, these
survey findings are consistent with a body of research and surveys that
show a relatively unchanging public trust, admiration, and deference to
science and scientists.

On climate change, scientists and their organizations have almost
unequaled communication capital, part of the problem is using that
communication capital wisely and effectively–partnering with other
societal leaders to promote greater public engagement and trust across
society.

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