For Public, Climate Change Not A Priority Issue Despite the attention being paid to the Copenhagen climate talks beginning Monday, public opinion of the urgency of climate change continues to sink. Some social scientists say the issue is so daunting, many people decide to shut it out of their thoughts. Will this affect a climate change treaty?

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For Public, Climate Change Not A Priority Issue

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Nearly 100 world leaders are expected to appear at the global warming talks that open today in Copenhagen. This is an unprecedented showing of leadership for this issue, yet at the same time, public opinion has soured on climate change.

A couple of polls, last week, found that barely half the American public believes that the carbon dioxide building up in the atmosphere could warm our planet.

We're going to talk about this with NPR's Richard Harris, who will be covering the climate summit in the coming days. Richard, good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's going on here?

HARRIS: Well, it is true, there've been a whole bunch of polls over the past year and they all point in the same direction - Americans in particular, care less and less about climate change. And turns out there are several things happening here, all at the same time, including psychology and politics.

But Anthony Leiserowitz, at the Yale School of Forestry, puts one reason above all the rest.

Professor ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ (Yale School of Forestry): First of all, it's the economy, stupid.

HARRIS: People can only worry about so many issues at one time, and, no surprise, they worry about issues that hit closest to home.

Prof. LEISEROWITZ: And, you know, the economy is still, by far, the number one concern of Americans, which just pushes all other concerns off the table - so to speak.

HARRIS: That explains why in a Pew Center poll of the 20 big issues of concern to America, climate comes in at number 20. But it doesn't completely explain why a number of recent polls show that people are less and less likely to accept the science of global warming. And here's where psychology comes in.

Kari Marie Norgaard at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, says even as scientists become more confident that climate change is a serious hazard, public opinion is shifting the other way.

Assistant Professor KARI MARIE NORGAARD (Whitman College): This seems irrational. And in that sense, then it's challenging this basic premise that we have of an enlightened, democratic, modern society.

HARRIS: She dug into that question and found, that as people start to feel overwhelmed by the scope of the problem, they simply turn away from the topic. It's denial - plain and simple.

Prof. NORGAARD: We just don't want to know about it, and so we're actively distancing ourselves from it or trying to protect ourselves from it.

HARRIS: So, some of the swing in public opinion can actually be explained as a reaction to growing public awareness of the issue, like Al Gore's movie and the 2007 United Nations science report - stuff like that.

But psychology isn't the whole answer either. Anthony Leiserowitz's opinion research shows that there's a relatively small but very active group of people who have decided that climate change is a phony issue.

Prof. LEISEROWITZ: The people who are the most skeptical about whether this is even an issue to worry about, they're pretty mobilized right now, and they're amplifying their message across the country.

HARRIS: And they're having a field day, right now, with the emails stolen from climate scientists. Skeptics have taken some suspicious-sounding statements in those emails as proof that climate change is a hoax. That's certainly not the view of mainstream scientists, but again, the public doesn't necessarily listen to scientists.

And Tim Wirth, a former Democratic senator who now runs the United Nations Foundation, says people trying to stir up doubt about climate change aren't working in a vacuum. There's a large and well-funded effort to block legislation that could hurt the industries most responsible for carbon emissions.

Former Senator TIM WIRTH (Democrat, Colorado, United Nations Foundation): Where does that money come from? Well, it comes in part - sometimes in large part -from the very industries whose ox is going to get gored if there is aggressive climate legislation. So, that becomes increasingly difficult on Capitol Hill.

HARRIS: The ultimate question then, is: How important is public opinion in the fight over climate change legislation?

Sen. WIRTH: I don't think any place in the world would you find signs of the public demanding this. I think it's very hard to see the public that demands anything. That's very rare.

HARRIS: But what does matter is the influence of the naysayers. And they don't need a majority voice to make a big difference.

So, proponents of action on climate change � both on Capitol Hill and in the White House � have tried to build public support for climate issues by actually not talking about global warming. Instead, they are framing their actions in terms of green jobs and energy security.

Anthony Leiserowitz says that's a good strategy. He found that the public is deeply split when you ask, say, if carbon dioxide should be regulated as a pollutant.

Prof. LEISEROWITZ: But when instead you ask a question like, you know, would you support a system of rebates for people who buy solar panels or more fuel-efficient cars, everybody likes that idea.

HARRIS: Questions like that get positive responses in the 90 percent range, he says.

Prof. LEISEROWITZ: It's a higher percentage than likes apple pie, or their own mother, probably.

HARRIS: So, the question ultimately may turn on not whether the public is deeply concerned about global warming, but how expensive and disruptive it turns out to be to address it.

INSKEEP: We're listening to NPR's Richard Harris who's been telling us about a shift in public opinion on global warming here in the United States. And, Richard, I want to ask you - because you will very shortly be on your way to Copenhagen for this climate summit - how is this shift in public opinion here likely to affect negotiations there?

HARRIS: Well, I can say a couple of things about that. One of which is I think that the American public opinion is more sour than in a lot of other places in the world. So, there's not this same sense elsewhere. But American public opinion counts a huge amount, and that's because America is the key player in many ways in the climate talks.

And if President Obama can't put something on the table in Copenhagen that will satisfy the Senate, then he's going to come back with a dead letter and they're not going to let that happen.

INSKEEP: And of course, the Senate is influenced by public opinion in the United States.

HARRIS: Exactly right.

INSKEEP: And also by the lobbying that you mentioned we should say. So, we've heard in recent days that these negotiators in Copenhagen are not likely to come away with some legally binding treaty on various nations around the world. How much is that setback due to a shift in public opinion in the U.S.?

HARRIS: Well, clearly, we had to get our ducks in the row, in the U.S., before we could do something internationally, and that's taken a long time. It's still not there, as a matter of fact. The Senate has not passed climate legislation, so that's one reason that the legally binding part has been put off for at least a year.

But there are lots of other things in play as well. They've been working on this for a couple of years and there are enormous, enormous issues. They don't even know what international agreement is actually going to look like, what form the treaty is going to take. And there are huge questions outstanding.

For example, will China and India actually pledge not just voluntary actions but pledge to meet some binding international agreement? So far they've said no, and the U.S. says unless they say yes we're not going to bind into a new treaty either.

There's also a huge rift between the poorest nations in the world and the richest, about the flow of money and technology and so on to help them deal with climate change. So, there are many, many huge issues in play in Copenhagen.

INSKEEP: Well, given all that, what is a measure of success in Copenhagen?

HARRIS: I think nobody has a clear answer of what a success in Copenhagen will be. I guess, ultimately, is whether they come away with a political deal there that can be turned into a treaty in the next year. And exactly what form that will take is a big open question right now.

INSKEEP: Richard, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Richard Harris.

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INSKEEP: Now, President Obama himself was planning to attend the first week of the climate conference, but the White House announced on Friday that Mr. Obama was delaying his trip until the end of this two-week gathering. The president now plans to arrive on December 18th. That'll put him place to lobby for any agreement that might be in the works at that moment.

The president had originally planned a more climate-friendly trip. He was going to combine his visit to Copenhagen with a stop in Oslo to accept his Nobel Peace Prize. But now the president will have to take two separate flights on Air Force One to Europe is just over a week - a little bigger carbon footprint.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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