Why we’re so blase about global warming

By Jack Shafer
August 29, 2014

Graffiti art is seen on a wall next to the Regent's Canal in Camden in London

If you don’t regard global warming as a serious problem, your company is growing. According to the survey jockeys at Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who think global warming is “very serious” or “somewhat serious” has declined since 2006 (from 79 percent to 65 percent). While a firm majority still considers global warming to be very or somewhat serious, the numbers show that public alarm over the topic has receded over a period during which the scientific, journalistic, and political consensus on the topic has surged the other way.

Over the same 8-year period, fewer respondents agree that the earth is warming and fewer agree that human activity causes warming. These figures must give cognitive whiplash to those who dismiss the public as a herd of easily driven sheep. The scientific establishment, the press, and politicians have a flimsy grasp of mass opinion.

Americans’ blasé and wishy-washy attitudes toward global warming may be related to the positive short-term effects of environmental policies that they observe daily. Our air and water is cleaner than it was a generation ago, as the federal government likes to crow, we’re recycling more and we’ve cleaned up more of the designated Superfund sites. Even U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have declined, though not by the margin that will undo the harm predicted by global warming theorists. Most Americans have witnessed social and technological progress in their lifetimes and they see evidence of future progress, so they’re optimistic. It’s only human nature that they might reject the apocalyptic impulse.

What else has nudged America’s global-warming opinion needle in the direction of the doubters and I-don’t-care crowd? Perhaps opinions on global warming are driven by the volume of press coverage, not necessarily the content. Today volume is down: A Nexis search of the five top newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times) shows that 2,286 pieces mentioned global warming in 2006, compared to 1,353 in 2013. That’s a measurable decline, but great enough to move opinion? I doubt it.

Or maybe the public conserves its supply of “concern” and rations it out when the pollsters come knocking. Intense worries about Topic A are displaced by intense worries about Topic B when events conspire to bring its profile higher. Call it crisis fatigue — your mind can handle only so much at a time. For example, 2006 was a time of a thriving economy. If you needed to worry about the cataclysmic, you couldn’t do better than worry about the planet frying on its own skillet. Soon after that survey, the prospect of losing your home and job became very possible. As President Obama likes to say, the economy is the top concern on Americans’ mind right now. Yet the Pew polls don’t seem to support the idea that people have limited supplies of concern.

Another possibility — not measurable with data because I can’t find any — is that the more rollicking a debate is, the more invested in it some respondents become. But a debate doesn’t rollick unless it’s full-throated and two-sided. In winning the argument, global warming theorists and their allies have sort of smothered it. Even their foes are cowed. When critics sing the opposition, it’s usually to the tune of, “Your Models Have Failed to Accurately Predict Temperatures” or “We Can Cope With Global Warming with Smart Research.” As the temperature (sorry!) of the debate has declined, perhaps the accompanying sense of urgency has cooled a few degrees, even among its believers. Or at least that’s my theory.

Like other global crises embraced by the masses, global warming has become normalized. When I was growing up, my generation was convinced that life would end in nuclear vapor, and except for a monthly nightmare about it, we carried on with our daily routines. Like the depletion of the Social Security fund or the eventual dimming of the sun, the apocalypse predicted by global warming theorists seems too distant to the average citizen to maintain any loyalty to it as an immediate threat. Also, greenhouse gas emissions are too global to be easily limited. The United Nations has trouble agreeing on what take-out to order when sessions go overtime. How can anybody expect the world to agree on who gets to emit what? I’d love to see a Pew survey pose a question like this: “Have global warming predictions convinced you that the coming devastation is so unstoppable that you’ve given up thinking about it?” Respondents would agree and cry at the same time.

Back to human nature: When we are very young, we think death is something that happens to other people. As we grow older, we concede that, yes, we’ll die, too, but it won’t be for a long time. Sometime in our 40s or 50s, as friends and family our age die, we begin to accept death’s imminence. By the time we’re in our 70s, we’re so obsessed with our mortality that we can’t believe younger people are so reckless. If a global warming apocalypse is really in the cards, we’re probably reacting to it as a typical 50-year-old would to actuarial evidence about his own coming demise. Yeah, yeah, let’s talk about something a little more topical.

For most of us, global warming is a problem for 90-years from now, and only two groups of people can be trusted to consistently think that far ahead: bond-buyers and hardwood forest planters.

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I’m buying bonds and planting hardwood trees today. What are you doing? Send long-term plans to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed has a core of walnut. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: Graffiti art is seen on a wall next to the Regent’s Canal, in Camden in London December 22, 2009. British media have attributed the new work to acclaimed British street artist Banksy. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

16 comments

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The increasing influence of the “right to life” movement has all but strangled rational worries about the “Population Bomb” many worried about in the sixties and seventies. These people feel fundamentally entitled to kill doctors who would provide the abortions the Supreme Court has held U.S. women are entitled to upon demand.

So of course they would look the other way to any suggestion that man cannot progressively cover every foot of ground and every blade of grass on this planet without turning our big blue marble into a big brown marble. To them the very argument of quality of life over quantity of life is heresy.

They worry not as to the prospect of mankind one day drowning in urine or smothering in feces because they also believe, as you say, such “day of reckoning” won’t arrive in their own lifetime. And yet the first human to live to 1,000 may have already been born.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Because of the “Manbearpig”? >

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvr2Y61l 5T4

Posted by satori23 | Report as abusive

yay manbearpig!!!

It’s no different than yeast fermentation. Life forms expand as far as they can until they exhaust all the resources. At least with yeast you get beer, whiskey or wine. With humans the earth is all used up and all the wine bear and whiskey will be gone??? Once all the wine beer and whiskey are gone – who cares?

Posted by michaelryan | Report as abusive

try as you may, you won’t find finite sources in infinite universe…

Posted by satori23 | Report as abusive

I don’t worry, because there’s no rational reason for thinking that 1/4% of C02 is supposedly changing the whole world, while the other 99.75% of what creates the greenhouse effect, is no big deal.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

Climactic change is all about energy. The sun throws about 5,000 times as much energy at the earth as mankind releases over the same period of time. It’s like worrying about the effect on the environment of a swarm of ants over a piece of ground when the same number of elephants are about to trample over the same. Climactic change is inevitable, but mankinds impact probably won’t make a whole lot of difference. However, mankind’s impact IS and WILL be felt in other more profound ways. The extinction of animal species is a real problem over time. Zoologists refer to our epoch as the Holicine extinction.

Posted by 123456951 | Report as abusive

Maybe you haven’t noticed.

The real catastrophes, such as WW I and the ensuing flu epidemic, are entirely different from the predicted catastrophes. 100 years ago Gifford Pinchot claimed we’d run out of coal and die. Not very prescient.

And check out the environmental history. We’re now in an ice age, not in “Greenhouse Earth.” I don’t like cold weather.

Many also feel that scientists’ “contribution” to public policy debate is predictably wrongheaded. If we had honored their demand for unilateral nuclear disarmament, Communism would rule the earth.

If there hadn’t been mass extinctions, reptiles (no worse than Communists) would still rule the earth. What’s bad about extinctions?

Posted by Charon1 | Report as abusive

Just as the above comments show, there’s still a great deal of ignorance about climate change. Plus the author failed to note that the Koch brothers/oil industry/Faux News has spent hundreds of millions in propaganda brainwashing stupid Americans that climate change either doesn’t exist. is a natural cycle, or nothing to worry about.

Posted by dochi1958 | Report as abusive

Maybe the public doesn’t believe in global warming because they’ve been lied to so often in the past? The Vietnam war was supposed to stop the spread of communism. So today Corporate America does most of its manufacturing “offshore” in communist China.

Saddam Hussein was supposed to have “weapons of mass destruction”. Osama Bin Laden was supposed to be hiding in Afghanistan. NATO bombed Libya to make that country safe for civilians.

Former Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan praised the “financial innovation” that allowed “low income” people to buy houses that they were never able to afford in the past. This was just before the housing / mortgage crisis in 2008, in which so many people could not afford to pay their mortgages.

Posted by nose2066 | Report as abusive

I am fully committed to believing in HUMAN CAUSED global warming just as soon as mankind can predict TOMORROW’S planet wide weather with 100% certainty. Of course, climate change has been ongoing since time immemorial.

Posted by manana | Report as abusive

the moment that climate change became a political football and the means to a one world government is when the general public lost interest.

the solutions proposed by politicians lower the standard of living for most of the world’s population by increasing basic food and housing costs.

Posted by BobWhite2000 | Report as abusive

Let’s see, we’ve been alarmed and warned of impending ‘collapse’ so many times:
Ice-free arctic by 2015 – wrong
Ever increasing global warming – wrong
More hurricanes – wrong
Islands swamped by rising sea levels – wrong
Etc.,
Etc..,

At some point the general public tunes out and moves on. And they certainly won’t support ‘just in case’ initiatives that result in higher taxes.
What does collapse is the credibility of those forecasting climate doom.

Posted by chipsnfish | Report as abusive

The one big factor overlooked is big increase in partisanship. If you are a republican you are pressured to believe global warming is a hoax. If you were to take the same survey split by democrat/republican you would find most of the change is from the republicans.

Posted by MarkSmith123 | Report as abusive

Another issue is that many people who accept global warming as fact believe that the deniers will prevent any meaningful action.
Nations will not allow the elimination of coal, oil, and gas power plants before their projected “useful” life is over — 50 years or more from now.

Since methane and CO2 are now being released from permafrost and clathrates, there is now way we will avoid 600ppm CO2 by 2100.

The Earth is doomed to be ice free. I just hope that humanity will be able to feed itself with as few extinctions as possible.

I no longer argue or respond to the deniers. They are hopeless, and so is our climate future.

Posted by ckd1358 | Report as abusive

People who don’t know the difference between weather and climate want me to believe they are smarter than all the climate scientists, and that there is some kind of hoax…

Also these scientists could win the nobel prize just by searching around on google for an afternoon to get “educated” about the topic. I understand not trusting authority, but this is a new low, bought and paid for by the oil majors and their astroturf organizations.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

It’s here and will get worse.

The real concern is the dummies living on the edge and want the rest of us to pay for their mistake. Water rising? Move. That damned simple.

Posted by Factoidz | Report as abusive