Climate Change Communicators Should Listen to the Public

Climate Change and science communicators might want to lend an ear to the public voice. Gallup Poll.jpg

According to a 2005 article by Thomas Brewer, a “substantial majority of the US public wants the government to do more about the problem of global warming…”, by for example enforcing mandatory emission reductions by industry and economic assistance of mitigation projects. This state of public opinion is a far cry from what many climate scientists and communicators subscribe to. By focusing on failures of traditional media sources to portray the scientific consensus and gravity of climate change and on the renegade efforts of big oil and gas corporations to combat ‘green’ activism (Nisbet, 2011), scientists and science communicators may be failing to investigate and communicate an element of key importance… the actual opinion of the public, not only of the media, on climate change policies.

“There is … evidence that many US leaders remain unaware of the extent of public support for more action, and of public opposition to recent US [e.g. Bush] administration policies…. The national administration during 2001-2004 and many members of Congress have not only been outside that public consensus but are perhaps not aware of it. The consensus-building process for support for climate change mitigation thus appears to have progressed more than is commonly recognized.” Brewer, 2005, p. 359, emphasis added.

What if Congress and business leaders DID know of the widespread public support for climate change policies? Would they act upon it? If they do know, why AREN’T they acting upon it?

What does public opinion look like on global climate change?

According to a March 2012 Gallup Poll, nearly 60% of a national population sample thought that most scientists believe that global warming is occurring, with only 7% thinking that scientists believe it is not occurring. According to this poll, 55% of respondents personally worry about global warming more than a fair amount, 84% feel that they understand the issue fairly or very well, and even 63% responded (in a January AARP Election Survey) that global warming would be somewhat or very important in choosing who to vote for in the upcoming 2012 Presidential election. (I was personally pleasantly surprised by this last statistic). Although there is ‘room to grow’ metaphorically speaking of public opinion on climate change, the state of affairs might be better than some scientists think… and much better than many politicians are acting upon.

The state of public opinion may look even better when considering other environmental issues: 71% of March 2012 Gallup Poll respondents indicated that they worried about air pollution more than a fair amount, and 78% indicated that they worried about pollution of drinking water a fair amount or a great deal. Air pollution and pollution of drinking water are certainly strongly related to the threats of climate change, although how much the public recognizes this link is largely unknown.

Smog over Santiago.jpg Smog over Santiago

In a striking indication of public support not reflected in Congress, a late 2002-2003 poll by the University of Oregon Survey Research Lab found that of the 92% of respondents who had heard of global warming before, 88% favored US participation in/approval of the Kyoto Protocol for limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Somewhat surprisingly, the support was fairly consistent across political parties: 94% of Democrats supported it, 88% of Independents supported it, and 83% of Republicans supported it (Brewer, 2005, p. 366). On top of these opinions, Brewer (2005) points out that according to 2002 polls, 76% of respondents “preferred that the ‘government set standards that require industries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions’” and 79% favored ’spending more government money on developing solar and wind power, with only 19% favoring government support of increased drilling for oil and natural gas (Gallup, 2002; Reuters, 2002).

But what did Congress do? Marked lack of support for such policies… Brewer (2005) pointed to a marked gap and trailing behind of elite opinions on these issues as compared to public opinions.

Wake up Congress and both political and scientific elites: It’s time to harness public opinion on global warming that has already been moving in the right direction for years now…

Climate science communicators, by building effective and publically-informed communications on climate change, could perhaps further and substantially improve public opinion toward climate change action if their communications captured the large population of citizens who are moderately concerned about global warming:

“The future of US government policies will depend partly on … how much the opinions of this moderately concerned group in the middle change and how influential they become, as the consensus-formation process continues to unfold.” Brewer, 2005, p. 373.


AARP Election Issues Survey, Jan, 2012. Retrieved May-1-2012 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.

Gallup Poll, Mar, 2012. Retrieved May-1-2012 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.

Brewer, T. L. (2005). US public opinion on climate change issues: implications for consensus-building and policymaking. Climate Policy, 4(4), 359-376.