Concern About Climate Change Waning

GUESTS:
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press
Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change

It's been three years since An Inconvenient Truth put climate change on the agenda. But a Pew survey of what Americans believe about climate change shows that concern about global warming is waning. Guests examine what could be behind the change in attitude.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In Florida, President Obama is on hand as an enormous solar power plant comes online. In Washington, a Senate committee takes up a major climate-change bill, and in December, world leaders will gather in Copenhagen to try to work out a global climate-change treaty. But amid all this activity, significant changes in public perception of the problem it's meant to address: a new poll by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press shows a big jump in the number of people who doubt the reality, the cause and the risks of global warming. Last year, for example, 71 percent of those polled believed the Earth was getting warmer, regardless of the cause. This year, 57 percent believe that - still a sizable majority but a 14 percent drop over the course of one year.

Later in the program, a woman who risked her life to teach girls under the Taliban teaches why - explains why her life is still at risk under the Karzai government, even though she was elected to parliament, but first, changing attitudes about climate change. We want to hear today from listeners whose views have shifted. Why? What made you change your mind? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Andrew Kohut joins us here in Studio 3A. He directs the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which did this study, and Andy, always nice to have you on the program.

Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (Director, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press): Hi, Neal, I'm happy to be here.

CONAN: And do these results surprise you?

Mr. KOHUT: The did surprise me. For three previous surveys, we had about three-quarters of the public saying that there's solid evidence of global warming, and it drops to 57 percent. Then we looked around at some other polls, and we saw the same trends.

And the Gallup had been finding about two-thirds of the public saying it's - the seriousness of global warming is correct. That fell to 57 percent from 62 percent last year, and the Fox poll also showed a decline from 82 percent to 69 percent saying that global warming exists. So this phenomenon is out there in a couple of surveys, and it's been replicated. You know, I want to emphasize it doesn't mean that most people think that we shouldn't deal with global warming, that it's not a problem, but some doubts have begun to creep into the public's mind. I think there's some explanations for it that probably have little to do with the issue itself. The most important thing is we've seen that fewer people are naming the environment as a public priority in…

CONAN: Oh, so this in fact may be related to the economy in an odd way.

Mr. KOHUT: Absolutely. At the beginning of the year, each year, we ask people to rate the issues, and rating the - protecting the environment as a top priority fell from 56 percent to 41 percent - other issues, too, reducing crime, from 54 to 46 percent. And what stayed strong, or if not has gone up over the years, is of course dealing with the economy. Eighty-five percent say that's a top priority. So when you have a mega-problem, lots of other important issues - I mean, no one would argue that crime is not an important issue or that dealing with immigration even is not an important issue, but some of these issues become - they get put on the public's back burner.

And I think what happens, to get back to this question about is it real or not, is if you're giving it a low priority, people will sometimes develop a rationale for that low priority. So you have fewer - more people saying, well, maybe it's not all that serious…

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And certainly, we might want to question it, if it's going to cause more economic problems, higher energy prices, for example.

Mr. KOHUT: That's right because one of the things that we've seen is while most people say we should regulate and control - do what we can to protect the economy at very high levels every year, the percentage saying protect the environment, even if it means slower economic growth, fell from 66 to 51 percent. The percentage saying they're willing to pay higher prices to protect the environment fell this year to 49 percent from 60 percent last year.

That's a lot of numbers, but the thrust of it is that when there are these other pressures, bottom line, the average citizen's bottom-line pressures, they get very dodgy about a whole bunch of things, and really, that's what - I think that's more than anything else what's going on here.

CONAN: There are also big partisan differences. For example, you have, as you might suspect, more Democrats are worried about the environment than Republicans, but a huge drop among independents.

Mr. KOHUT: Yeah. Well, I think one of the things about independents these days is they are not the same, old independents. Many of them are former Republicans. We've seen a lot of people move out of the Republican category and move into the independent category. So the independents of today are more conservative than the independents of last year or two, certainly two or three years ago.

But the partisanship, Neal, is extraordinary. Eighty-three - 32 percent of conservative Republicans believe there's solid evidence of conservative warming, compared to 83 percent among liberal Democrats. It's like night and day. They're talking about different phenomenon.

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CONAN: And interesting regional differences, too. The biggest areas of skepticism, or the biggest drops, it seems to me, were in the Great Lakes region and the Mountain West.

Mr. KOHUT: Yeah, that's right, very substantial differences there compared to the Northeast or the Pacific area, where changes have been a little bit more modest, or the South.

One of the things that we did when we saw this is, well, does it have to do with the fact that we had a colder winter? And so we went to the states that had a much below-normal winter - summer this year, a cooler summer basically. And there we found many fewer, 46 percent, saying that this is real compared to - in other states. The problem with drawing an inference is we don't know what those states were like last year.

CONAN: Yeah, right.

Mr. KOHUT: But you know, there's a hint that maybe some of the - the cooler summer may have made a contribution.

I know back years ago, when we first started talking about what we called global warming then, back in the early '90s, late '80s, when we had those horrific summers, that's when that issue really began to take off. So don't discount the weather as a contributor. I'd give the weather, on a 10-point scale, maybe a five, but I'd give the economy a 9.5.

CONAN: We're talking about perceptions of global warming. If you've changed your mind, give us a call. Tell us why. 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And Mike(ph) is on the line from Cincinnati.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. My visceral concern about global warming has diminished significantly in the last few years, and it's directly related to the quantity of media coverage of the issue and also the sort of the atmosphere that the media creates when they report on global warming. They don't create a sense of crisis and emergency around that issue anymore. And I remember, for example, when Al Gore's movie came out, all of a sudden, the media was all over global warming, and they were reporting on it intensely for months. And then they started coming out with polls that show people's concern about global warming has gone way up, and it was the most important issue on their minds. But then after that, the media diminished the coverage, and I think what we're seeing now is a direct result of that.

CONAN: So the media's interest in the economy, for example, a lot more coverage of that, may have crowded out coverage of environmental issues.

MIKE: Well, it doesn't have to crowd it out. It doesn't have to preclude coverage of environmental - but it's not just coverage. It's also keeping it top of mind among the general public. I mean, the media has shown its power to keep us, you know, scared, okay, with 9/11, okay? I mean, they created a visceral sense of fear on 9/11. They can do it with global warming because we know that the ultimate consequences of global warming are grave. So if the media can keep up the frequency and the gravity of the reporting, they can change people's attitudes and behavior.

CONAN: I hear some advocacy there, Mike, and somehow, I don't mean to question your sincerity, but I suspect you do think the global warming is a very important issue.

MIKE: What I'm - I do, but I'm talking about two different things here. I'm talking about intellectually understanding it and viscerally feeling it.

CONAN: Okay, all right. Okay, I get you. Andy?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, I think that Mike is right, that there's a top-of-the-mind aspect of this. But one thing I would challenge, Mike, is that there is not the same top-of-the-mind awareness or sensitivity to the issue of terrorism. Even the 9/11 attacks have faded from the public's mind as time has passed.

MIKE: But that's because coverage has faded.

Mr. KOHUT: Well, yeah, and in point of fact, what the news organizations do is they cover the issues of the day and what is happening. So when a lot is happening about terrorism, or a lot is happening about climate change, you're going to see much more coverage. The media doesn't say our job is - I'll let the member of the media, Mr. Conan…

CONAN: It's why we call it the news. We don't call it the olds. That's history. Mike, thanks very much for the call.

MIKE: Okay.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Anthony Leiserowitz has been a research and director of the Yale Project on Climate Change. He's with us today from a studio on the campus there in New Haven. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ (Director, Yale Project on Climate Change): Thanks, Neal, and good to be here with you and Andy.

CONAN: And you conducted a study last year, in conjunction with George Mason University, and I was looking through your numbers today, and they track almost exactly with Andy Kohut's numbers in the Pew survey from last year.

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: That's correct.

CONAN: And would you expect, if you went out and did another survey, based on what you've seen of the Pew survey results this year, that those results might be way down?

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: I do. I think Andy and the Pew Center have found exactly a trend that is out there in the real world, and we would have seen much the same thing. We'll actually be doing another one in the next month. So we'll know for sure.

CONAN: Know for sure. And as you did your survey last year, you asked people to explain why they held the views they did, and well, you ended up categorizing them in six different categories.

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: That's right. So this research really came from the recognition that Americans don't speak with a single voice about climate change. And what we found, in fact, is that there are six different Americas within America on this particular issue. And so, I won't go into the details, but we basically found that, for instance, there's a group that we call the alarmed. That's about 18 percent of the public, or at least it was back then. These are people who believe climate change is happening, they're very concerned about it, they're already taking action in their lives, and they want to know what's the next thing I can do.

That was followed by a group that we call the concerned, and that was a full third of the public: again, believe climate change is happening, human-caused and a threat, but more distant, not something that's directly affecting me or my community. Then two groups that we call the cautious and the disengaged, about 19 and 12 percent each, not really sure if it's happening, not really sure if it's human-caused and really don't think about it much at all.

And then last were two groups that we call the doubtful and the dismissive, 11 percent and seven percent respectively. These people, you know, if it's happening, it's natural and not anything to worry about. And then the dismissive in particular, for that seven percent, climate change is a hoax. It's something that, to quote, "scientists making up statistics for their own job security."

CONAN: We're talking with Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University's Project on Climate Change, and Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Remember when all that green was all the rage? Not anymore. Public interest and concern about global climate change is dropping in the U.S. We're talking about why this hour, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Today we're discussing climate change, global warming and changing public perceptions about what's happening, why and what we need to do about it. If you're one of those people who found your views about the reality and risks of global warming changing, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you can take a short online survey to find out your climate profile, where you fall on the spectrum of American attitudes about climate change. It's offered in collaboration with KQED, our member station in San Francisco. You can find the link on our Web site, at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, they just conducted a new survey, and Anthony Leiserowitz, a research scientist at Yale and director of their Project on Climate Change. They did a big survey a year ago.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go next to Edward(ph), Edward with us from Oakland.

EDWARD (Caller): Hi. Yeah, my opinion has changed, but more than anything, it's my opinion about what we should be doing about it. I do believe that the warming is real. I mean, melting glaciers in the Antarctic and so on is a real thing. What we should do about it, in my opinion, has changed. In other words, I think - before I thought well, maybe we should take extreme measures, you know, and right away. And then over the last few years, I've come to the opinion that there's evidence that it's not so conclusive, that a lot of scientists are hedging their bets also, I mean, qualifying these things. And consequently, I think well, we should take reasonable but not extreme measures. So let's move along sort of in a reasonable way but not extreme. And part of the reason is that I think well, they keep saying, you know, even if we do something extreme, it might not ever make much of an effect, and, you know, if the water line was only going to rise three feet by the end of the next century, which is the estimates I've heard, well, you know, we've got 90 years to prepare, I mean, and the modeling…

CONAN: Certainly, you don't own any land in Kiribati, but go ahead.

EDWARD: And the modeling is in doubt because, you know, modeling - like for instance, weather modeling depends on being able to compare it with actual weather. Well, we've never been in this situation before, so the modeling…

CONAN: So you think our actions ought to be taken in account with scientific certainty.

EDWARD: Yeah, that's right. I mean, I do think it's uncontestable that global warming is happening, and we see the evidence for it. But just how much of it is human, how much of it is a natural cycle, and the effects of it - you know, nobody really knows for sure. So there's all kinds of bets being hedged here, and my change of opinion is really this general atmosphere of, yeah, nobody really, you know, nobody knows.

CONAN: Okay, Edward, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. And I think his doubts are reflected in your findings, Andy.

Mr. KOHUT: Yeah, they're also reflected in Anthony's typology. I think this is a man who's dropped from a concerned citizen to a cautious citizen, and there are real doubts about what to do about it. On cap and trade, we have the public largely not following that debate, but you know, just leaning to it. And to another point that he made, in another survey we found that only 56 percent of the public things that there's a scientific consensus about this. So from an advocate's point of view, they have a lot of work to do to deal with the issues raised by this caller.

CONAN: And Anthony Leiserowitz, that comes at a time when scientists, and we're not surveying scientists for either of these studies, but scientists seem to be more and more certain that as a trend, global warming is a fact and that human activity is a significant contributor to it.

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: That's right. And so that's what makes these results all the more disturbing to many people within the scientific community.

I'd like to add one other factor that I think might be playing a role in this because I absolutely agree with Andy that the economy is largely crowding out all other issues, including climate. I also agree with your earlier caller that the media is playing a vital role here, not only less coverage, but let's face it: Far more media coverage is going to the economy and health care, so again crowding out other issues.

But the other thing that I think is really happening is that the climate-change-dismissive community is really mobilized and amplifying their message across the country. I mean, I would suspect that they're doing a far better job of getting their message out to their own constituencies, the dismissive and the doubtful, and they're making inroads on the cautious and perhaps even some of the concerned, just as Andy alluded to.

CONAN: And to be fair, it's a message that people want to hear, hey things aren't so bad, as opposed to things are going to hell in a hand basket.

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: Well, certainly many people would like to hear that, but again, I think - and this is going to only ramp up as we're going into this period of intense debate over the bills in Congress, as well as the Copenhagen Climate Summit. And as the president gets more and more personally involved in this subject, I would suspect that this is going to become an ever-greater debate within the country.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Diana(ph), Diana with us from Raleigh.

DIANA (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.

DIANA: I guess that what I feel is that my concern about this issue has diminished, and a great part of that is because I think that the message is getting out to people that you as an individual, you as a family, need to do everything that you can, but that many of the large companies and corporations, who probably contribute much more than any individual, really isn't being taking to task on this. So as much as I continue to recycle and try not to do things that are going to contribute to this problem, I also feel that a lot of the companies and corporations are ignoring this and that they can get by with doing very little.

CONAN: And that's at least in part because this cap-and-trade legislation, which as Andy points out people are really not focused on, well, it's just beginning to make its way through Congress.

DIANA: And what I feel is that a lot of times, there are correlations, I mean, with the economy being as bad as it is, and often I think people feel that it was a lot of big corporations that put us in this position, and now the individual is being made to suffer. When it comes to an issue like global warming - although I think that people in the back of their mind understand that it's going to affect them.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DIANA: You know again, you're asking me as an individual to make my contributions, but the people who seem to have gotten us into this position in the first place are still not really going to have to do much about it.

CONAN: Anthony Leiserowitz, does your research go into some of the things that Diana's talking about?

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: Absolutely. I mean, we find that many people in fact say that they want corporations to act more on this than almost any other group. That said, they consider themselves, as individuals, the second-most-important group to get involved, and in fact, they want everybody involved. And that's really the most important thing here is that to address this issue, people want to know that we're all pitching in to help and that we're all doing our fair share. And I think that's a crucial part of this, and given the fact that our entire economy is built on the burning of fossil fuels, it's going to require an all-hands-on-deck approach.

CONAN: And corporations, certainly, are going to have to do their part. Diana, thanks very much.

DIANA: Thank you.

CONAN: Email question from Gary in Grass Valley, California: How much does religious affiliation correlate to the changes Andy is reporting?

Mr. KOHUT: I don't think there's much of a correlation. There probably is a, if you looked at a cross-tab by religion, you'd find some of it, but it's just a measure of the differences in partisanship between various religious groups. For example, the white Evangelical Protestants are just heavily Republican, and conservative Republicans at that, and less religious people tend to be Democratic. So I don't believe that this is a strongly religious issue for most people, which isn't to say that, you know, there isn't some concern among religious groups about this issue. Anthony probably knows a lot more about that than me, but you don't see it in the gross numbers.

CONAN: Anthony Leiserowitz, do you see it?

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: Absolutely. I mean, Andy's right that we don't see it in big differences, say, between Catholics and Protestants, other than the fact that Evangelicals do tend to be weighted towards conservative Republican positions anyway. But we also see a raging debate actually occurring within the religious community. We call this the greening of religion.

Even Evangelicals have begun to really divide on this issue with many leaders now saying look, this is a moral, Christian issue that we have to take on. And they draw upon their own Scripture and their own reading and interpretation of the Bible to get to that position of, you know, from their viewpoint, God told us to till and tend the garden, and we're not doing a very good job of that. And as well as taking care of God's creation. These are the kinds of themes that really resonate, increasingly, with religious communities, and I think it's one of the biggest stories that's going on within the broader environmental movement.

CONAN: Let's get Mike on the line. Mike, with us from San Luis Obispo.

MIKE (Caller): Yes. Thanks. Can you hear me?

CONAN: Yep. You're on.

MIKE: Okay. Thanks. I think, if anything, the - I've gotten more concerned about doing my part on - as it relates to climate change - and it's sort of is twofold. One is that even if there are issues or somebody who does have some questions about whether it's real or not, if you look at all the scientists, it, you know, everybody that's actually, you know, like a Ph.D. level -scientists all agree about climate change. The only people that you don't…

CONAN: Not quite everybody, but (unintelligible)…

MIKE: Not everybody, yeah, but…

CONAN: …except for most, yeah.

MIKE: …vast majority of educated scientists agree that there are issues there. The other thing that I look at from my point of view is - well, if I can do stuff to decrease the amount of fossil fuels that I use, that's going to be good, anyway, even - separate from the climate change issue - just from an energy independence issue. And just as an issue of sending less money to the people that sell their fuels to us that don't like us anyway. And so if it turns out, we can benefit the climate by using less fossil fuels, it also turns out we use less foreign oil and other stuff. And so it's…

CONAN: Yeah. That's the foreign oil as energy independence foreign policy, even national security issue.

MIKE: Right. And if you look at the technology, we need to be out there developing the technology for the future for energy independence anyway, separate from the climate change issue. So, why not get on there? Get ahead of the curve. Develop those technologies. And then that can be a big market. And those are going to be the things that will drive jobs and other things. I think the people that are worried about the - all the efforts in climate change hurting jobs, I think it's going to create more jobs, you know? (Unintelligible)

CONAN: And it's interesting that both Barack Obama and John McCain ran on the creating new green jobs platform - plank their platforms.

MIKE: Yes. And I think, you know, in some respects, it's kind of too bad that we couldn't have done more - if we're going to do stimulus money, which we are doing - it's too bad that even more of that couldn't have been towards things like that have a long term payoff in a positive way, of both…

CONAN: Well, a lot of it…

MIKE: …independence and climate change.

CONAN: A lot of it did go for house insulation, that sort of thing, which would have a longer term affect. And then there was the Cash for Clunkers program, which of course, hit a couple of different things. But anyway, Mike, thanks very much for the call.

MIKE: I think…

CONAN: Appreciate it.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking today with Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, about the differing and changing perceptions about the issue of global - of global warming.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email from John(ph) at Lake Oswego, Oregon. This - he writes: Your guest left out one important and growling group - those who have no doubt about global warming, but feel it's already gone too far to do anything about. And, Anthony, is that a detectable group?

Mr. KOHUT: It is a detectable group and I would say it's a smaller subsection of people who would even call alarmists. And in fact, it's not just to feel like we can't do anything about it, some of them even have what I would call apocalyptic visions - and I don't mean in a religious sense…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KOHUT: …they think that this is going to be something like the - like after nuclear war or it's going to be the extinction of all life on the planet. And, you know, climate change is a very serious problem that the world has to confront, but it's not something of that level. That's - goes way beyond the worst case scientific projections. And unfortunately, that kind of thinking is disempowering, because how you can possibly stop something of that size and scale, like, for instance, nuclear war?

So, you know, we do see that, but again, it's a very small proportion. In fact, one of the most important things that I've seen in my research is just how much - most Americans believe that we can deal with this? I mean, they may be naive, but the truth is, most people think we can deal with this if we put our - if we'd roll up our sleeves and we put our effort to it, we can solve this as individuals, as communities, as states, as the United States and of course, as a global community.

CONAN: Andy, does your survey find that same can-do attitude?

Dr. LEISEROWITZ: Well, I think, it's there. I mean, you can even see in this survey, among the people who say they have some doubts about whether this, there's solid evidence. There's a disposition to consider this in a series issue. And many of the sane people say: well, may be we should pursue this cap and trade - this cap and trade policy. You know, one of the other things that I want to bring into the conversation is this is a global problem and we have information about how the rest of the planet feels about this issue. And we did a survey the spring, of 27 countries, and the United States ranked number 25 on the list, in terms of the percentage of people who say it's a very serious problem.

CONAN: Who were 26 and 27?

Dr. LEISEROWITZ: Actually, it's 26 (unintelligible) it'll be below us - tied with us were the Russians, at (unintelligible) each of in - and below us were the - below us were the pole in - the Poles and the Chinese. The doubters in China are much more substantial than the doubters in the United States.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. This is also reflects on the public will towards reaching an agreement in Copenhagen, which is coming up in December?

Dr. LEISEROWITZ: Absolutely. I mean, they just put some numbers. Forty-four percent of the Americans in the survey said this is a very serious problem compared to 68 percent of the French, 67 - 65 percent of the Turks, 65 percent of the Japanese. The median response is about 65 percent. We give about 45 percent and only 30 percent of the Chinese say very serious problem.

CONAN: And these opinions, Anthony Leiserowitz, are important. Well, it's important what people think, but particularly at a time when important pieces of legislation and important negotiations are underway.

Dr. LEISEROWITZ: That's right. I mean, it's all heading towards Copenhagen in just over a month. And so, like I said earlier, this is going to really ramp up in terms of intensity over the next month and a half. Another thing I found very interesting in Andy's research, which is something we found as well, is that, you know, most people haven't heard about cap and trade yet, and yet this is the major approach that the United States is trying to take.

And in a sense, if I can use the analogy, it's a jump ball right now. It isn't clear yet which of these two sides - let's call them the, you know, climate change advocacy community versus the naysayer community - is going to come down with it, and that's really wide open right now. We'll have to see what happens over the next couple of weeks.

CONAN: Anthony Leiserowitz, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Dr. LEISEROWITZ: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, a research scientist and director of Strategic Initiatives at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Study, joined us today from a studio on the campus there in New Haven. And our thanks as well to Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for People & the Press. He was kind enough to join us today here in the Studio 3A. Andy, as always...

Mr. KOHUT: Thank you, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: Coming up, Malalai Joya is with us. She's an Afghan politician who stood up to the Taliban and now finds herself standing up to the Karzai government. Her memoir is called "A Woman Among Warlords." Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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