It is useful to be reminded from time to time that the “know nothings” in the US are still a minority and that even the most lavishly financed industry public relations programs can fail.
This month the Centre for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and the Yale Project in Climate Change released a report on US attitudes to climate change. Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes found that American’s belief in the reality of global warming had increased by 13% over the past two and half years, from 57% in January 2010 to 70% in September 2012. For the first time since 2008 more than half of Americans (54%) believe global warming is caused mostly by human activities, an increase of 8% since March 2012. About 40% of US citizens believe people around the world are being harmed by global warming and a slightly smaller percentage thinks it is currently harming Americans themselves. Worry levels about climate change are the highest since November 2008.
The results are interesting to say the last. For a significant period of time the usual suspects now trying to buy the election (courtesy of the US Supreme Court) for Mitt Romney have been funding campaigns which spread confusion and doubt about climate change. Their tentacles also reach well into Australia among the usual suspects here. Plus, 2008 is also significant because after that year a lot of people in the US had other things — like survival — on their mind.
Why the difference? Perhaps it’s due to declining insecurity and some economic improvement; perhaps the grassroots environmental campaigns are having an effect; and, perhaps social media is now being deployed by scientists as effectively as it is by climate change denialists.
Extreme weather events in the US over the past few years might also have played a part — while Texans may not have changed their attitudes (well, outside Austin anyway) the news about Texas weather may have influenced others.
This week’s storm will also have an effect if a September report from GMU and Yale is to be believed. It strongly suggests extreme weather may have been a factor with 74% of Americans believing global warming is affecting US weather. Significantly, another report from the same teams in March 2012 found that more than half of Americans have tried to reduce their energy consumption, although fewer people talked about global warming with people they know or searched out information on the topic. The same survey also found that more Americans increased their attention to global warming stories in the news.
It may also be that some of the climate change communications are being framed in different ways. A paper published online by researchers from GMU, American University Washington and Yale discusses different ways of framing climate change in terms of public health and/or national security. In particular it looks at “the potential for various frames to elicit emotional reactions consistent with climate change mitigation and adaptation goals”.
The research found that framing it in terms of national security was a no-no and provoke anger among audience segments already doubtful or dismissive about the issue. This probably says more about the general mindset of people who find national security important than it does specifically about climate change. It also implies that national security is largely a code for a whole set of attitudes which may have little to do with the reality of what makes the US secure or not.
The Yale-GMU team also looked at the impact of attitudes to global warming on voting intention in the presidential election and published a report on this in September this year. The findings were probably unsurprising and suggested that other factors were more important in influencing which candidate was likely to be supported although a majority of undecided (at that stage) favoured Obama on the issue.
So the usual suspects might get Romney elected and get the climate change policies (or rather lack of policies) they want — but Americans do seem to have been unconvinced by the denialist dogmas.