Declining Interest Makes Climate Change A Hard Sell

Despite any number of ads and awareness campaigns launched by the government, advocacy groups and corporations that have turned "green" into a superlative, the number of Americans who believe climate change is a serious problem has been declining, according to a recent study by Pew Research. Host Scott Simon talks to Ed Maibach, director of George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication, about the challenges of launching public awareness marketing campaigns about climate change.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Climate change can be a hard sell. World leaders have tried for years to come up with an agreement on the issue. They'll try again when they meet in Copenhagen next week. It's hard to sell climate change to the general public too, despite any number of ads and awareness campaigns launched by the government, advocacy groups and corporations that have turned green into a superlative. The number of Americans who believe climate change is a serious problem has been in decline, according to a recent study by Pew Research.

Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communications at George Mason University joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ED MAIBACH (Mason University): My pleasure, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: Why do you think the issue's becoming apparently less important to people over the past few years?

Mr. MAIBACH: I think there's two big things going on. Number one is the economy. It's been in shambles for quite some time now and psychologists tell us that there's such a thing as a limited pool of worry, finite pool of worry -we can only worry about so many things at any one time. And most people that I know are fairly worried about the economy, so it tends to have the effect of forcing their concern about other issues further from top of mind.

The second thing that's absolutely going on right now is this is a highly contested issue. There's a battle raging in Congress right now about passing climate legislation, and lots of people, lots of organizations are vying for the hearts and minds of the public to influence them in one direction or the other.

SIMON: At the same time, if you were to follow advertisements, you certainly get the impression that major corporations have decided that - I believe we said green is a superlative - if you want to sell something, you have to tell people it's green.

Mr. MAIBACH: They absolutely are. Sometimes legitimately - in other words, they're trying to develop greener, cleaner products and services. Sometimes not so legitimately - in other words, trying to reassure us that everything's okay; they're on the job, their heat-trapping pollution emissions are something that are well within their control and decreasing all the time.

SIMON: Help explain then why there might be at least statistically a disconnect between a general public that seems to want greener consumer products and the general public that says I'm not as worried about global warming as I used to be or at least it's not as big a concern as it used to be in my priority of worries.

Mr. MAIBACH: People do make decisions as consumers and they make decisions as citizens. And with regard to their decisions as consumers, we do see an increasing proportion of Americans trying to change the way they shop to be a more environmentally conscious citizen. Conversely, with regard to how people act as citizens, even those Americans who care most about global warming, they tend not to actually stand up and be counted with their elected officials.

SIMON: You've heard about this recent email controversy.

Mr. MAIBACH: I have.

SIMON: Now, we'll explain. Someone hacked into the, or more than someone, hacked into the computers of the venerable Hadley Research Center, University of East Anglia climate research unit in England, and revealed quite a few emails that seem to show that its leading climatologists seem to have ignored, dismissed, concealed, sometimes even destroyed some raw data that didn't seem to support their conclusions. This has been fodder for skeptics of global warming. What do you make of it?

Mr. MAIBACH: Well, it certainly wasn't helpful. The timing is particularly bad in the sense that the leaders of the world are gathering next week in Copenhagen. To the best of my knowledge, it doesn't actually show any misdeeds but it certainly does show a whole lot of rhetoric, inflammatory rhetoric often flying back and forth between colleagues. So I think, at very least, it was unhelpful.

SIMON: Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, thanks very much.

Mr. MAIBACH: My pleasure, Scott. Thank you.

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