Do People Really Care About the Climate?

GreenBiz logo2 Yesterday, Bob wrote about the need to engage mainstream Americans on climate.  Today, I'm extending the conversation by sharing Joel Makower's recent post where he discusses the contradictory polling on climate change public opinion and the challenge it presents for communications efforts. What is the best way to frame climate?

Posted Oct. 26, 2009
By Joel Makower,

Do people care about the climate?

It's an open question these days, and opinion polls offer little
help. Some show that climate ranks fairly low among public concerns,
while others indicate a high level of concern among the populace. And
in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate summit, now a mere six weeks
away, those opinions count for something, particularly in the United
States, where lawmakers are looking to be swayed one way or another.

Here's a sampling of the hodgepodge of public opinion.

• The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press
last week reported that "There has been a sharp decline over the past
year in the percentage of Americans who say there is solid evidence
that global temperatures are rising. And fewer also see global warming
as a very serious problem — 35 percent say that today, down from 44
percent in April 2008."

• The World Wide Views on Global Warming,
a global opinion poll released on the same day, reported that "90
percent of U.S. participants say it is urgent to reach a tough, new
agreement at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December
and not punt to subsequent meetings," and that "69 percent believe the
price of fossil fuels should be increased."

It's not just Americans who seem to be schizophrenic on this topic.
Polls from Canada, Australia, Japan, Egypt — you name it — all seem
to have conflicting results. Much of this, of course, depends on
exactly what questions were asked, and by whom: the pollsters' agendas,
when they have them, can steer answers in a certain direction. I'm not
suggesting that Pew and the World Wide Views folks have done this. I'm
just saying.

It's in this context that I recently spoke with my friend Cara Pike. Pike heads the Social Capital Project,
a project spun out of the nonprofit Earthjustice, aimed at "building
the base of public support for environmental protection." Pike — whose
meaty and insightful "Ecological Roadmap" of Americans' environmental
attitudes is the appendix of my book, Strategies for the Green Economy
— has for years been combining research tools and storytelling
techniques to build some of the most important national environmental
campaigns of the past decade.

Pike's latest effort is a new report, Climate Crossroads: A Research-Based Framing Guide for Global Warming Advocates to Global Warming Advocates. The report (available for download from, is described as:

a first step towards a unified conversation on global
warming. It is a summary of what is known to date about the most
effective communications approaches, developed by drawing on more than
25 advocacy organizations' experiences in the field, the body of
research they built over the years, and new research conducted
specifically for this project. This document identifies the ideas and
values that will lead to public support for global warming advocates'
shared objectives over the long term, and suggests ways to bridge from
specific policy concerns to the broader, shared narrative.

The idea, says Pike, is to create a "Common Message Platform" that
will provide organizations with "a shared set of key points and
perspectives that will lead to both more effective communications on
their own particular issues, and a more engaged and constructive
national conversation on the topic with sympathetic groups."

In other words, it aims to answer the question: How do you talk about climate change?

Actually, that wasn't stated quite right, based on Pike's work. Her
research led her to prefer the term is "global warming" over "climate
change," not to mention "climate crisis," "global weirding," and any of
the several other monikers that have been inflicted on this global
malady. However, Pike acknowledge, global warming "is not a perfect
term for a number of reasons. Scientifically, it's not as accurate, for
example, but it is the term that's most familiar with the public."
Accurate or not, it's what people seem to respond to.

(You can listen to a podcast of our recent conversation here.)

Pike pointed out just how far we have to go in educating the public.
"What we found even in talking to people who are members of
environmental organizations or who identify themselves as
environmentalists is they often thought global warming had to do with
the problem with ozone holes."

It's that bad, folks.

She continued. "The other thing that you find is that most people
don't really have a sense of the connection between energy, the
economy, and climate. Most people wouldn't be able to tell you, for
example, that their energy or great majority of their energy might come
from coal, for example."

Part of the problem, she said is that the media, both the mainstream
media and the niche environmental media, "has leaped ahead into this
somewhat elite conversation. But even those who are trying to follow
that conversation very actively are missing some fundamental
information. So what we found is that you have to go back and fill in
some of those holes."

Another problem has to do with identifying solutions that are
meaningful to people, and that they're actually willing to do. "I think
a growing number of Americans really do want to engage and do things
that will make a difference," says Pike. But she adds, "I think that
it's very confusing what really will make that difference and in
particular, given how busy people are, how pressed they feel
financially, they really want to know 'If I only have time to do a
handful of things, what are the things that are really going to have
the biggest payback and biggest impact on solving the problem?' I think
there's been a bit of a scale issue around solutions where many of the
things that the public are being asked to do don't seem to match the
scale of the challenge. How can you really solve a global complex issue
by changing light bulbs?"

Short answer: You can't.

It's a good question, though, and one that seems to have flummoxed
marketers, public agencies, activist groups, and pretty much everyone
else aiming to educate, motivate, and activate the public on global
warming/climate change. Do you scare people, inspire them, threaten
them, or bribe them? Are people more motivated by fear or greed? Do
they care more about the future of their children or their day-to-day
quality of life? Do they see this looming crisis as an inevitable
calamity or an empty, sky-is-falling warning? Is it a crisis or an

These all remain open questions.

I'll let you wade through Pike's report to find the nuggets of her
research that are of greatest value to you in your work. And I'd love
to hear your thoughts about what works, what doesn't, and how best to
change the conversation, and the climate for action.

Joel is co-founder and executive editor of Greener World Media, Inc., which produces and its sister sites,,,, and Joel is also the principal author of the annual State of Green Business report and the Greener by Design conference, both produced by Greener World Media.

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