_Q: Does anybody really care about this stuff outside of the "green" community? I know I sure don't.
Asked by Rick Abell, MS '78, Steamboat Springs, Colo.
As someone who cares deeply, and who is often surrounded by people who care, it can be easy to forget that not everyone attaches the same level of importance to environmental issues. I understand—not everyone is an environmental science student who has to think about climate change on a daily basis. And our world certainly has enough other woes to satisfy your daily dose of angst. So, given the likelihood that not everyone cares as much as SAGE columnists do, I appreciate the opportunity to come to terms with one of the basic tenets of communication: "Know thy audience."
So who really does care? In order to gauge the answer to this question, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication conducted three nationally representative surveys of American adults (in 2008, early 2010 and mid 2010). The results have been compiled into several reports, including "Climate Change in the American Mind" and "Global Warming's Six Americas." The latter broke Americans into six groups based on their feelings about climate change. These groups fall along a spectrum from the "alarmed" (people who are convinced that it's real, it's a big deal, and who are ready to act to prevent it) to the "dismissive" (people who are convinced it's not happening.) While these groups turn out to not be very different demographically, they show significant differences in terms of beliefs, actions, basic values and political orientations.
The studies found that 69 percent of Americans were at least "moderately" interested in global warming at the time of the survey. But this interest doesn't necessarily translate to caring—or taking action. Unfortunately, the percentage of people who are likely to care the most and to feel the most motivated to act to prevent global warming (the alarmed and concerned groups) dropped from 51 percent in November 2008 to 41 percent in June 2010. However, 37 percent of all people surveyed agreed that they could easily change their minds about global warming.
The answer to the "who cares" question seems to depend on the current cultural and political environment. What happened between November 2008 and June 2010 that caused so many Americans to change their minds? The ailing economy, health care reform, or even the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are just a few examples of issues that may have replaced worries about climate change in the American mind. Coverage of other big news events contributed to the decline in climate change-related coverage in the media, creating the impression that climate change is not something that we need to worry about right now. Robert Brulle of Drexel University told the New York Times Dot Earth blog, "Media coverage doesn't necessarily tell people what opinions they should have on a given issue. But it does influence what individuals are concerned about."
It may be that not enough Americans care about climate change to make those of us in the "green community" feel entirely comfortable. But I think that's exactly why it's so important to carry on the conversation. Even if you don't care now, maybe if we keep talking, you'll at least see why we care.
Originally published in Stanford Magazine's September/ October 2011 SAGE Column: