Environmental Ennui

More people than ever rank the environment low among their concerns

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 4/18/2013

A Gallup Poll released last week indicates public concern in the United States over global warming has risen slightly after several years of skepticism, but also found that Americans are less than alarmed about what it will mean to them.
A solid 64 percent of those surveyed believe global warming will not pose a serious threat to them in their lifetimes. In its final analysis, Gallup researchers concluded that while most people think global warming is real, a higher number do not think it will affect them, and “these could be the attitudes that matter most when it comes to Americans’ support for public policies designed to address the issue.”
Meanwhile, findings from an annual poll conducted by GlobeScan and released in February show that global concern about the environment is also waning. A total of 22,812 people in 22 countries were asked how seriously they take air pollution, water pollution, species loss, automobile emissions, fresh water shortages and climate change. Fewer people said “very serious” than in any year since tracking began 20 years ago.
“Scientists report that evidence of environmental damage is stronger than ever, but our data shows that economic crisis and a lack of political leadership mean that the public is starting to tune out,” GlobeScan chairman Doug Miller said of the poll’s results. “Those who care about mobilizing public opinion on the environment need to find new messages in order to reinvigorate a stalled debate.”

Opinion vs. Fact
Scientists at Caltech pointed out that whatever may be the trends of public opinion on global warming and other environmental concerns, those issues remain very real.
“One thing that hasn’t changed is the facts,” said Jess Adkins, a Caltech professor of geochemistry and global environmental sciences. “We’re still putting [carbon dioxide] into the atmosphere at a rate that’s higher than we’ve ever seen, certainly for the last 65 million years, and maybe longer. Regardless of people’s attitudes, the facts have not changed.”
Paul Wennberg, an R. Stanton Avery Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Science and Engineering at Caltech, warned against putting too much stock into public opinion polls.
“At one point in time, public opinion goes one way or the other,” he said. “I wouldn’t read much into it. You can get all bent out of shape that way. If we have another hot summer — and we will — people will come back and express concern. The bigger question is from a perspective of global action necessary to address carbon emissions. That’s a political problem.”
If people were asked today if they want to live in a clean environment, there would essentially be universal support for that, said Wennberg, who believes that, in the end, people will make the right choices going forward.
“When scientists are able to clearly illuminate the underlying chemistry and physics that drive problems, such as air quality in Los Angeles, and can provide policymakers with adequate understanding of those underlying processes and show that there are solutions that exist, people do, in the end, make good choices,” he said. “Politicians have made good choices in the last 40 years. Climate change is going to become more and more apparent over time. I suspect it will receive more and more attention, including from those who can and will do something about it.”
Environment vs. Economy
One telling sign that environmental issues are no longer uppermost in the minds of most Americans came during the last presidential election. Neither President Obama nor Republican nominee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney talked about the environment in any substantive manner in any of their three debates. That omission was the first time the subject went unmentioned since 1988, the year NASA climate scientist James Hansen raised the issue’s profile by testifying before Congress.
“The past presidential election was very interesting in its approach to global warming and climate change, because no one said anything about it, which was a change from previous elections and public discussions,” said Adkins. “I don’t think that means anything is in decline, but I do think both candidates made a political choice that they couldn’t make a lot of hay off this subject. What I think is interesting about the political reaction to climate change is it’s in a crippled state right now.”
If climate change went unmentioned, the state of the economy came up a number of times, remaining an issue people still worry about a great deal, even nearly five years after the initial financial collapse of 2008. However, as Adkins pointed out, it’s a spurious argument to say that people are worried about the economy and, therefore, less concerned about the environment.
He believes the president is concerned about the environment, and, he said, “I think Obama actually is right about this. It could be a green jobs revolution. We can develop a whole new sector to the economy, but, in terms of alternative energies, we’re behind the curve right now. We really have an important decision to make in terms of whether we’re going to cede that to other countries or jump in with both feet.”
“The challenge is climate change is a long-term and global problem,” said Wennberg. “It is an important problem, but it’s difficult to engage the public in the sense of the long-term commitments that are required to make progress. We’re all busy people. We all have a hundred other things we’re interested in.”
Alternatives vs. Status Quo
Ultimately, the approach taken toward addressing increasingly important environmental issues needs to change on many fronts, as GlobeScan’s Sam Mountford pointed out. In an analysis of that organization’s annual Radar poll, he wrote, “The challenge for the environmental movement is to articulate an alternative to our current economic model that empowers people rather than constrains them and is politically achievable in difficult times. It’s time, in other words, for a real alternative.”
The two sides of the debate tend to present phenomena like climate change and global warming in extreme terms: The left adopting doomsday scenarios and discouraging hope, and the right undermining established science by insisting neither is real, moving the debate absolutely nowhere.
“The left is telling itself some lies, just like the right,” said Adkins. “What has really mattered in moments like that is leadership. I support Obama, but I think he has failed on this front. If climate change is important to him, he should lead. One of the things that would create jobs is if we reconfigured how we distribute power around the country by investing in a smart grid or redoing the country’s interstate highway system. The costs for this are about the same amount as the increased defense budget of the Iraq War. It’s not a number that’s beyond the capacity of the country. That’s what I mean when I say leadership matters. I think the American public is capable of making smart decisions.”
Whatever the case may be when it comes to the public’s understanding of environmental issues and how people will be affected, the consequences of climate change — as well as air quality, water pollution, global warming and greenhouse gas emissions, among many other concerns — need to be dealt with. 
Public opinion may be changing, but the facts have not. Where opinion matters most is holding the feet of our political leaders to the fire in order to ensure that effective policy is enacted and enforced to help turn the tide against the monstrous environmental conditions that man has created.