Why nobody cares about climate change

Posted on August 26, 2012

A recently published poll carried out in March 2012 by researchers at Yale and George Mason University suggests that climate change is an important consideration among 55% of voters – mainly democrats and independents. The researchers conclude that “at the national level and among ten key swing states – taking a pro- climate stand appears to benefit candidates more than hurt them with registered voters”.

Why don’t I believe it?

As a supporter of climate change mitigation, if I were running for election in the US this Fall, “climate change” or “global warming” would be the last words I would ever want to cross my lips. I believe that these terms have, politically, become the equivalent of a toxic brand.

But I am no politician so maybe I’m totally wrong here and people do, in fact, care.

Examining the platforms of the two presidential candidates suggests that I may not be totally wrong. The Romney camp does mention climate change – only to say that the evidence is far too uncertain to justify significant expenditures for its mitigation. Unsurprising. The Obama camp, on the other hand, avoids any mention of climate change. It talks about American energy independence, a balanced energy policy (including ‘dirty’ fuels like coal and oil), the creation of jobs, including “clean energy jobs” among others, and a focus on “clean air and water”.

This is common sense. Obama may believe in climate change and want to support policies to mitigate it but he knows better than to place such toxic terms front and center in his campaign. Rather he talks about that which people care about – energy independence, jobs, clean air.

So why is the Yale and George Mason poll seemingly at odds with candidates’ political instincts? The problem arises in all such ‘single issue’ polls. People in general respond ‘yes we care’ in polls of this nature because, at some level, they probably do. However, by isolating one issue, what such polls miss is that although people may care, they care about other issues one heck of a lot more.  All polls that ask respondents to trade climate change off against other things consistently show climate to be at the bottom of people’s priorities – especially in strained economic times like the present.

Candidates’ political instincts are much more in line with the results of some recent research* that shows that in trying to win people over, “communication should focus on how mitigation efforts can promote a better society, rather than focusing on the reality of climate change and averting its risks”.

For climate campaigners, this has important lessons. If one wants to get people on board with actions that help reduce carbon emissions then the last thing one wants to do is to talk about climate change – a toxic brand. Rather, one needs to focus on those issues that people care about – the sensible approach being taken by the Obama campaign. Hopefully, Obama’s carefully crafted campaign won’t be derailed by vocal, ideologically driven activists or “purist” scientists demanding that Obama comes out explicitly in support of a climate change agenda.



 *Promoting pro-environmental action in climate change deniers. Paul G Bain, Matthew J Hornsey, Renata Bongiorno & Carla Jeffries. Nature Climate Change 2, 600-603 (2012)