Keeping climate change on regional agendas despite public apathy
While environmental organizations and agencies try to bring attention to climate change in the Great Lakes region, the public apparently doesn’t care much about it.
Two weeks ago, a Pew survey showed global warming ranking last among public priorities.
That comes as the National Wildlife Federation and EcoAdapt release a climate-driven guide for Great Lakes restoration. It draws from peer-reviewed science and summarizes what’s happening with the region’s changing climate, including: warmer temperatures and increased precipitation, and environmental effects like more sedimentation, spreading of invasive species, decreased wetlands and evolving vegetation.
The guide emphasizes adapting to climate change, but stopping it is important too, said Melinda Koslow, a regional campaign manager at the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center, and co-author of the guide.
“We really need both … we need comprehensive policy that reduces emissions on a national and global scale,” Koslow said. “And some adaptation projects also mitigate … if you’re expanding green spaces, you’re expanding spaces to collect carbon.”
Not a priority
In the Pew Research Center survey on national policy priorities, 25 percent of respondents ranked global warming as a top priority – good for last place on the list of 22 issues.
But surveys can skew actual public perception, especially on long-term challenges like climate change, said Tom Dietz via email. Dietz is a professor of sociology and environmental science and policy at Michigan State University, and primary investigator of the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessment program.
“Climate change is not an issue most people think about on a day to day basis,” Dietz said. “So the attitudes expressed in a survey, or around the coffee pot at work, may not reflect a lot of time spent thinking about the issue.”
Dietz said the lack of national policy on climate change has more to do with organized lobbying than public opinion.
The survey doesn’t necessarily mean the public doesn’t care, said Jon Krosnick, a social psychologist at Stanford University.
“I would guess that if lots and lots of other issues were asked about, such as ‘fixing the potholes on local roads’ and ‘improving the artwork in the National Gallery,’ many, many more issues would rank lower than global warming,” Krosnick said.
Harsh political climate
But as political vitriol and posturing amp up in an election year, the public’s sentiment in the survey has been mimicked by lawmakers. The Republican primary debates have been largely devoid of climate change talk.
In last month’s State of the Union address, which many pundits considered a campaign kickoff, President Barack Obama only briefly alluded to climate change, saying, “the differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change.”
And he’s probably right. A divided government, a limping economy, unemployment and wars have rendered national climate legislation, or even talking about it, impossible during his presidency. The Pew survey corroborated climate change’s partisan nature – 38 percent of Democrats ranked global warming as a top legislative priority compared to 11 percent of Republicans.
This reflects the larger picture: 58 percent of Democrats said environmental protection is a top priority compared to just 27 percent of Republicans.
The economy, jobs and terrorism topped the Pew list. Since 2007, the environment and global warming both decreased about 14 percentage points in the Pew priority surveys.
Climate keeps changing
But as climate change remains a low priority for Congress, government agencies remain engaged. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration funded the National Wildlife Federation report.
Climate change isn’t slowing down for politics. The science cited in the federation’s guide shows rising temperatures, earlier springs, decreased snow and ice over the last decade, and plants losing their leaves and blooming two weeks earlier than they did 70 years ago.
“Regardless of beliefs, it’s already happening,” Koslow said.
There are already obvious regional changes, she said. “Maumee Bay (western Lake Erie) is one example … they’re already dealing with loading in the springtime and droughts in the summer. They’re getting a lot of rain falling all at once, and then none.”
The National Wildlife Federation is helping five Great Lakes communities do climate-driven restoration work using their guide. The guide will change as they find out what works and what doesn’t, Koslow said.
One of the biggest barriers is scientific uncertainty, Koslow said. Different climate models often predict different outcomes – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take action.
Dietz likened climate change uncertainty to a medical problem.
“Diagnoses are never 100 percent certain and treatments always have costs and risks,” he said. “But if you are told by competent physicians you have a serious disease, it is usually not a good idea to ignore the disease until you can be 100 percent certain the diagnosis is correct.”
(The Pew survey was based on telephone interviews conducted Jan. 11-16, 2012, among 1,502 adults, and had a sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.)