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.

Climate change is already affecting Great Lakes communities. Maumee Bay in western Lake Erie has experienced climate change-induced precipitation extremes. Photo: ellenmac11 (Flickr)

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.)

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About Brian Bienkowski

Brian currently serves as a reporter for Great Lakes Echo. He's also a contributor to Mindful Metropolis magazine, the City Pulse and Michigan River News. He graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in business marketing in 2005 and will graduate with a master's degree in environmental journalism this May. Office: 517.432.5155 Twitter: @BrianBienkowski

9 thoughts on “Keeping climate change on regional agendas despite public apathy

  1. Mike: I sometimes wonder if hypocrisy isn’t just built into the national psyche now. And if so, where that comes from, the passionate words that the actions do not back. I noticed, and seethed about, what I call Yellow Ribbon Patriots when the wars first started, and my husband came and went from them, but people who “backed” them and “supported the troops” didn’t, didn’t seem to talk to their kids about going, but boy, they felt a certain warm something when the subject of war and troops came up. I wonder about the right, and their admonitions that this nation needs to return to Biblical principles, then that political party does anything but. The easiest research in the world? Look up a red-letter Bible verse that’s the polar opposite of what people on the right claim.

    But the environmental movement puzzles me, too. As I said above, we want to oppose pipelines and deepwater drilling but use, in great quantities in short periods of time, oil. We oppose refinery expansion and Great Lakes pollution but use that product, as much or more as people who support refinery expansion. How can we do both? How can we be a movement that does what we want stopped, uses what we hope will soon never be used again, engages in what we oppose?

    I think any leaders of the environmental movement who want to revive interest and action need to start with us as individuals, and our daily lives. As MLK said, we need to self-purify. We need to hold our organizations accountable, and each other. No one can heat up or otherwise trash only their own small bit of the planet. We’re doing this to each other. The worse part is that most of the world is poor, will never fly, can never enjoy any benefits from the lifestyles that are causing the problem. Maybe shifting some of the focus to environmental justice, that we’re not just doing this to a massive ecosystem and polar bears, but to other humans, will help. For me, I’ve decided that 2012 is the year of No More Pointless Silence. We act as if slightly offending someone or hurting someone’s feelings, or really, just not going along with the crowd, is actually worse than climate change. Facebook is a good venue for speaking your truth, and a major truth is that the environmental community is not rising to this occasion, the words being used to describe the situation have dire tones and describe dire consequences, but the followup has none of the above. If climate change is an emergency, let’s act like it is, and see how much better the movement does in general.

  2. Becky:
    Climate change fanatics are far from being the first group to talk the talk but fail to walk the walk. Hypocrites abound in many sectors. Religion, Politics, Environment, Conservation, law enforcement, teaching, yadda, yadda.
    Difference between an environmentalist and a developer? An environmentalist lives in a house in the woods, a developer wants to build a house in the woods.
    It’s a part of the human psych.

  3. The apathy about climate change is everywhere, not just among “deniers”. I wonder if it’s really apathy, or a dull hopelessness we are wallowing in and won’t rise above.

    I think this: people who don’t walk their talk become lethargic and dull. Cognitive dissonance does not make us energetic and involved. Regarding climate change, the environmental movement as a whole describes it as a dire crisis while not involving the grass roots in meaningful ways. Americans are 5% of the world’s population and cause 25% of the CO2 emissions, and I don’t notice environmentalists causing less. In fact, I think we cause more because we seem just addicted to air travel. People visibly bristle or freak at the idea of “giving it up,” as if the most opulent lifestyles on earth can really be plunged in a state of lack by vacationing locally, or regionally. It’s the single most polluting thing an individual can do, yet our organizations encourage it, and even profit by it. It makes absolutely no sense.

    We might be the first movement in history that does the things we’re protesting and causes the effects we’re simultaneously trying to stop.

    http://www.facebook.com/ilovegreatlakes

  4. Thanks, Mike, for supporting my point! Climate change is a lot like our national debt–many people won’t take it seriously until it becomes a catastrophe.

  5. I started to write something, but I decided to not beat a dead horse. The most definitive sentence in the article is:

    “Different climate models often predict different outcomes – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take action.”

    Perhaps that “shoot first and ask questions later attitude” is okay if the actions taken are innocuous. But what if the actions taken cause political upheavals, wars, famine, global economic disruptions, pestilence, paganism, inequality and tyranny?

    Oh crap. Now I’ve written something….

  6. The lies and bias campaign by the FOX network and Koch Bros against the science professionals has been effective. There are many Republican scientist prostitutes willing to lie and fake science reports to support the Republican campaign polluters. Crimes pay and money talks always rules against good clamate change policies.

  7. “Dietz said the lack of national policy on climate change has more to do with organized lobbying than public opinion.”

    Ah…but organized lobbying today is directed at raising doubts about the validity of science. With so many dumb people in the U.S., their efforts are highly effective!

  8. Perhaps dealing with climate change can be addressed best in many cases by bringing attention to the fact that dealing with many causes of climate change has other benefits. Driving less and driving higher-mileage vehicles, for instance, means less cost for drivers and less local air pollution. Higher use of fossils fuels means fewer energy resources left for future generations, though that may be a hokey argument in today’s self-centered world, where short-term thinking seems to dominate. Less dependence on fossil fuels means greater energy security in a politically unstable world. This list of arguments could go on…

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