Is Climate Fatigue Setting In?

As more Americans and politicians ignore, or dismiss, global warming, a debate heats up over why.

Are Americans getting blasé about global warming? In a weekend New York Times story Elisabeth Rosenthal writes that,

“belief in man-made global warming, and passion about doing something to arrest climate change, is not what it was five years or so ago, when Al Gore’s movie had buzz and Elizabeth Kolbert’s book about climate change, Field Notes From a Catastrophe, was a best seller. The number of Americans who believe the earth is warming dropped to 59 percent last year from 79 percent in 2006, according to polling by the Pew Research Group.”

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That attitudinal shift also reflects a substantially changed political landscape. Four years ago, both the Republican and Democratic candidate for President agreed that climate change was real and required immediate action. Today, as Rosenthal notes, the GOP has made rejection of climate science a “requirement for electability,” while President Obama “talks about ‘green jobs’ mostly as a strategy for improving the economy, not the planet.”

Meanwhile, Rosenthal points out, the rest of the world remains quite concerned about the build-up of greenhouse gases, with a number of countries, such as Australia and India, instituting new carbon policies. So what gives with Americans? The headline of her Times article poses the question: “What happened to global warming?”

Responding in The Washington Post, Brad Plumer writes that, “it’s a complex, multi-layered story.” But the two biggest factors, he suggests, are the recession and the Senate’s institutional procedures, which prevented a simple majority vote in 2010 on cap-and-trade legislation.

Joe Romm, however, sees “collapsing media coverage” of climate change as a major reason for the erosion in public concern. A larger media failing was also the central argument that former Vice President Al Gore made in his Rolling Stone essay earlier this year. But a number of leading social scientists who study the media and climate change intersection don’t agree with this take. For example, in a recent interview, Stanford’s Jon Krosnick said,

“According to our national surveys, large majorities of Americans have believed that climate change is real and human-caused, will have undesirable consequences, and merits substantial government action to address it. These majorities rose a little in the years preceding 2007 and fell a bit in the years after, but the majorities remain large … I’d say the news media have paid plenty of attention to the climate science, but truth be told, that science is now an ‘old story,’ one the media have told many, many times before. It’s understandable, therefore, that every new climate study is not at the top of the front page of every newspaper in the country.”

Krosnicks’s observation that climate science has become an “old story” is worth noting: The doom element to many stories likely contributes to public fatigue with climate change. Let’s face it: even the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have long fallen off the front pages and the nightly news broadcasts (except when there are major events or policy shifts). Some in the media have tried to make global warming more topical by linking recent catastrophic disasters (such as floods and wildfires) to climate change. The challenge they face here may lie in doing so without editors’ and the public’s concluding that too is “old news.”

Those familiar with media coverage of environmental issues might also rephrase the Times article headline to ask, “What happened to biodiversity?” The science of conservation biology and concerns about declining species for years running had received frequent media coverage. And the crisis still exists, (though, as with climate change, there are concerns about it being misreported).

Similarly, Grist recently asked this question: “Remember when Americans used to care about population?” Well, that became an old story, too.

The news about climate change isn’t getting any better, and it still gets reported, in particular online, with some regularity. Are people just tuning out?

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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21 Responses to Is Climate Fatigue Setting In?

  1. harrywr2 says:

    Remember when Americans used to care about population?

    The US Fertility rate has been at replacement since 1970.
    There is nothing to discuss about population in US domestic setting unless you want to discuss a ‘less then replacement rate’ policy or ‘grandma has lived long enough…she needs to go’ or ‘immigration’.

    Sometimes policies are set in place that actually work or set an place and given a reasonable amount of time to prove that either they are working or they are not working….then people stop talking about them.

    • Eadler says:

      Harrywr, @

      The concern with population in the 70′s was not only with the US population, but the global population. The green revolution has delayed the day of reckoning, and population control measures in China have reduced the growth of global population since then.
      The problem of limiting population growth seems to be solving itself. As countries develop, people are choosing to have fewer children. Some European countries and Russia have had declining populations for quite a number of years.

      The environmental movement which began in the late 1960′s in the US was successful in reducing pollution and environmental degradation in the US. It seems that big business and its political surrogate, the Republican party still want to roll back the gains that were made, and eliminate the EPA, a creation of the Republican president, Richard Nixon.

      The global population of humans is probably already too large for the carrying capacity of the planet and the quality of life is probably on its way down. Anthropogenic Global Warming is clearly one of the problems. According to the best scientific calculations we have, it is not as easy to reverse as population growth, once it gets going. The biodiversity of the earth will never be what it once was.

      In the US, economic problems, especially unemployment have helped push climate change to the bottom of the problems list, on top of all the cultural factors that have been mentioned in the article in the NYTimes.

  2. Michael Ioffe says:

    Science of climate change is not old story, it is wrong story about GHG and properties of water.
    To say, that water vapor is greenhouse gas it will be enough to confirm my point.

    If mass media will bring attention to all properties of water-evaporation, condensation, role of these properties in convection forces, in bringing energy of evaporation to upper troposphere, together with energy of other gases it is10 km closer to space, it will be another picture, what are the real reasons for climate change.

    Al Gore politisize science of climate change and because of that bring the worst damage to creating by him political science of climate change.

    • Eadler says:

      Michael Ioffe,

      I don’t know where you get this stuff. The Greenhouse gas theory was shown to be correct in 1859 by the great JohnTyndall. It is the best understood part of climate science, and has been accurately calculated since Gilbert Plass used the latest spectral measurements and digital computer to calculate the progress of long wave radiation in clear air in 1958.

      Water vapor concentration versus temperature had been assumed on average to follow a law of constant relative humidity, which makes it increase by about 7% for each increase of one degree C. This has recently been verified by satellite measurements. This shows that it represents positive feedback to a temperature increase.

      http://pielkeclimatesci.wordpress.com/2010/01/06/guest-post-by-andrew-dessler-on-the-water-vapor-feedback/

      • Michael Ioffe says:

        It is difficult to reply to you, if censorship of this site do not print answer.
        I hope they will send to you my answer.
        (Editor’s Note: Excessive length and repetitiveness in case of commenter’s
        earlier remarks.)

      • Michael Ioffe says:

        Dear Eadler,
        at least editors explain to me rules of engagement.

        Let look on your source:

        “There are really two questions here: 1) do observations indicate that the water vapor feedback strong and positive, and 2) do models adequately reproduce the observed feedback?
        For the first question, the evidence of a strong and positive water vapor feedback is overwhelming. Observations of the response of the atmosphere to events like the eruption of Mount Pinatubo and El Niño cycles show quite clearly that changes in water vapor lead to enhanced trapping of infrared radiation when the climate warms [Soden et al., 2002; Soden et al., 2005; Forster and Collins, 2004; Dessler et al., 2008]. For a more complete summary of why we’re so confident, see Dessler et al. [2009]
        It is particularly worth noting that the papers that Prof. Pielke referenced by Dr. Sun and colleagues (which he says casts doubt on models’ ability to simulate the feedback) clearly confirm with observations that the water vapor feedback is strong and positive. “

        “For the first question, the evidence of a strong and positive water vapor feedback is overwhelming.”

        Eruption of Mount Pinatubo and El Niño cycles, of course, are changing amount of heat transmitted to air and space in closest area, of course, it will change amount of evaporation and condensation of water (in case of eruption we have more centers for condensation).
        More water vapor and more water droplet, of course, will increase trapped IR radiation.
        I DO NOT SEE POSITIVE FEEDBACK in this picture, as Mr. Dessler wrote.
        In opposite, in case of more heat from sources properties of water bring more energy to upper atmosphere and help cool air.

        “Given the strong water vapor feedback seen in observations (~2 W/m2/K), combined with estimates of the smaller ice-albedo and lapse rate feedbacks, we can estimate warming over the next century will be several degrees Celsius. You do not need a climate model to reach this conclusion — you can do a simple estimate using the observed estimates of the feedbacks along with an expectation that increases in carbon dioxide will result in an increase in radiative forcing of a few watts per square meter.”

        WRONG CONCLUSSION IN FIRST STATEMENT BRING Mr. Dessler to next speculation.
        What is interesting it is statement “You do not need a climate model to reach this conclusion”
        Mr. Dessler admit that climate model can’t provide conclusion, that water vapor has positive feedback.

  3. Mike Mangan says:

    Ah, poor Keith. No one is here to comment. Guess I’ll help…

    Yes, climate fatigue has set in. Now we move on to defunding the gravy train and endless mockery of the zealots and rent-seekers who wasted so many of the precious resources of a collapsing Western Civilization. You seem like a nice guy. Why don’t you find a new niche to work, like the Singularity or something? It’s not too late for you and Revkin.

  4. Eadler says:

    It seems to me that there have been a large number of news stories involving heat waves, drought and flooding, which give reporters an opportunity to bring up the issue of climate change. Since some scientists believe that while the weather is primarily responsible, the level of severity is likely to have been affected by climate change, it is important to mention this. I agree with Joe Romm that it is wrong and puzzling that it is not mentioned by reporters in their stories.

    Since these stories are not old news, I don’t see why editors would suppress mention of climate change because it is “old news”.

  5. Bob Jacobson says:

    People are scared. They’re well aware that if the prognostications are correct, their lives are going to be hell. They’re not going to be able to drive. Hey, if the climatologists are right — and everyone knows they are, especially the professional deniers who have to be paid to spill their molly-coddlng bilge — the rubes won’t even be able to go outside (and neither will anyone else, rubic or not). Food is going to be contested, water is going to be prized like oil, dermatologists and roofers are going to be making out like bandits, and business — meaning jobs — could very well grind to a halt, in a permanent fashion that manmade economic jolts only loosely suggest.

    …And then here come the climate Jeremiahs, (rightfully) crying outside the walls that “Woe is we!” Of course the people run into the arms of charlatans and happy-talkers who tell them just to ignore the problem, it will solve itself (with the unspoken solution that maybe we’ll all be dead before the worst, leaving the next generations to sort things out).

    No one has yet managed to speak to the people in other than alarming terms, neither the climate experts nor the anti-scientists, those magic-worders who are turning the conversation away from considering the probable to praying for the impossible. We need a new discourse that is friendly as well as tough lovely, sincere and sharing, that respects most people’s abject horror at what may lie ahead or their instilled ignorance, and that touches their hearts. Aloof scientists and remote policymakers can’t do it — they can’t do it even for conventional issues, how can they do it regarding a future unlike anything our species has known? — and neither can ardent activists who find it easier to alarm than to educate. People are scared. Reassuring them that there is a way, not to avoid the future, but to confront it, is the challenge of our lifetimes for those of us who ourselves are unafraid to confront the future with humility, humor, and a sense of purpose. It’s our struggle to win or lose. Very scary, very real, and very imperative.

  6. sachin says:

    Climate fatigue has started setting in. After its all nature and we cannot help it. We humans only have to face these things whether its a minor change like climate fatigue or some major earth quakes. Good to read here Keith. You have such a nice post.

  7. Keith Kloor says:

    Eadler,

    The point I was trying to make about the disaster/climate change angle is not whether it’s a legitimate connection, but whether that story would become “old” too. Currently, editors and writers are trying to suss out where the connection is strong enough to include mentioning climate change as a contributing factor. I realize that some activists would like this to be done more frequently, but the issue is complex.

    Bob Jacobson,
    I don’t think that people suffering from fatigue are necessarily running into the arms of charlatans. I think many of them are probably simply tuning out. And let’s be mindful also of what social scientists have said about this–that that is a “finite pool” of worry and especially in these hard times, people are focused on pocketbook issues. I think in a few years, assuming the economy improves by then, we’ll see the (concerned about climate change) numbers tick up again.

    But your point about speaking to people in terms other than “alarmist” is a good one. I agree that we need to expand the discourse in a more constructive manner.

    • Evil Denier says:

      Joe Romm’s hysteria helpeth not.

    • Bob Jacobson says:

      Keith, people are running into the arms of charlatans because they’re being lured there. I counted seven oil and gas industry ads advertising during a popular TV program lasting 60 minutes. More than 10% of that hour was devoted to petrochemical waste. Then of course we have an army of professional, many paid liars in the blogosphere. ironically, I believe these digital deceivers are less effective than the mass-media propaganda, as they talk mainly among themselves. The ubiquitous presence in our culture of Big Oil and Gas and their hangers-on is the real continuing danger. If they lived long enough, these industries’ executives would be lynched by future populations. We tolerate them because it is easier to lay the burden of our licentious lifestyles on our children and children’s children then to be just ourselves.

    • Eadler says:

      We have had many record rainfalls and droughts in 2010-2011.
      I have been watching the stories on Pakistani floods, Texas drought, Somali drought, Vermont floods, Thai floods etc. Sure weather is a factor, and the level of damage is affected by human land use practices, but in each of these cases record drought or rainfall amounts are a factor. I am not expecting editors and reporters to attribute it all to global warming, but I think a paragraph or 2 discussing it as a factor or not, is warranted.

      In the mainstream media, it is absent from the discussion as part of the story. Whatever the reason and whatever editors might feel about its attractiveness to the readership, I agree with Romm, that it is a disservice to the reader not to mention it as a possible factor.

  8. RickA says:

    I think that we are seeing a “the sky is falling!” or “the boy who cried wolf” phenomena.

    The dire predictions are not coming to pass.

    The actual observations always seem to be below the projections.

    So, a lot more people are taking a “wait and see” attitude.

    In 30 years, we will be in a much better position to judge how accurate the climate projections are, to see if the sea level rises predicted have actually come true, to see if the amount of ice predicted to melt has actually melted, etc.

    I think a lot of people treat the “alarmist” predictions much like they treat the nuclear doom clock! How many seconds before nuclear doom are we? I don’t know or care – and many people also feel the same way about global warming.

    • Bob Jacobson says:

      In 30 years we will already be in deep. The calculations of climate change are one thing. The consequences of climate change are far less susceptible to prediction. Many experts believe we are already feeling the effects. Maybe for you the sky hasn’t fallen in, but tell that to the people of Bengla Desh, Africa, the Russian steppes, the American Midwest, here in the Southwestern drought zones, and the more specific victims living in America’s tornado zone. Each is experiencing unprecedented extreme weather resulting in billions of dollars of economic damage and in many cases blighted lives and outright deaths. Vectors for equatorial deadly diseases now are sighted in places they weren’t before, as in the American South and Italy. Your argument is specious. If Americans are blasé in the face of impending disasters, it’s no accident. Those who profit by lack of action are investing their own millions in blurring the message. They’re hateful people, but what’s new? Their kind have always been a scourge on the rest of humanity.

      • RickA says:

        True it has been getting warmer. However, this is true for the last 12,000 years. The ocean has risen 40 meters (or 400?? – I can never remember) since the last ice age. So what! That doesn’t mean humans have caused it – it just means that it always gets warmer during the middle of an inter-glacial. The Sahara used to be grassland – now it is desert. Humans didn’t cause the climate to change 5000 years ago – nor did they cause the climate to change 12,000 years ago. The data are ambiguous as to whether humans are causing the climate to change today.

    • Eadler says:

      RickA,
      You are quite wrong about this. We have had record droughts and precipitation amounts in many areas of the US. Such phenomena are predicted as a result of global warming. Each decade has been warmer than the last.
      The observations bear out the projections of global warming models. The dire consequences are not supposed to be happening now, but rather in the future.
      You are however correct about people’s attitude about future concerns. The struggle to survive in this economic climate trumps any concern about global warming decades in the future.

      • RickA says:

        True we have had droughts. However, my reading leads me to believe that there is no increasing trend on these extreme events. When you look back over recorded history, they occur no more often than in the past. There is always a drought somewhere. That doesn’t mean anything about increased drought in the future.

  9. Bob Jacobson says:

    The article speaks to Americans’ bizarre reliance on “the news” as our source of expert knowledge. By definition, “the news” is immediate and transient. It is precisely the wrong model for sustained engagement with grand challenges like climate change. Most journalists put up with it. A relative few write books, as they are less remunerative (or were, before massive layoffs of journalists) — and who, anymore, reads serious books other than an already aware intellectual fraction of the population? Our communication system is designed to induce ignorance. Overseas, it’s quite different. A Swedish communication scientist refers to the US model of “the news” as “the Black Flashlight: wherever it is shined, knowledge is hidden.”