March 11, 2008

Changing Public Attitudes: A Politicized Debate is Not Enough

Today’s popular media has increasingly focused the public’s attention on the issue of human-caused climate change. Yet the media has not been effective in persuading the public that global climate change is a looming danger. A fundamental change in the perception of this threat is critical if people are to alter personal behavior to mitigate these concerns and provide the political capital necessary for legislators to address climate change effectively. Unfortunately, the very politicization of a fundamentally scientific issue may further hinder the process of resolving it.

While a scientific consensus is drowning out the voices of those who doubt humans cause climate-change, the political debate continues. This scientific issue has largely been played out in the media as a politically charged contest that is more indicative of the contest on Capitol Hill than that between climate scientists. This politicization of the issue begets apathy for a segment of the public that is turned off by politics or who use the argument of one side to justify their own position. This creates a situation in which more information does not provoke crucial changes in public attitudes and behavior.

The effect of information on public attitudes towards climate change was the focus of a recent study conducted at Texas A&M. This study found that considering oneself informed on the issue was actually associated with reduced concern for the threat of climate change. These findings indicate that the information the public is informed by is not persuasive in demonstrating the gravity of the climate change threat. In order to change public attitudes, exposure to a debate on the issue is not enough. This is not to say that public information has not been effective in providing the foundation for shifting public attitudes in the past. The anti-smoking movement initiated by the Surgeon General’s declaration—one based upon a review of hundreds of scientific studies indicating the health hazards of cigarettes—has been successful in drastically reducing smoking. This is largely due to the fact that as the public has increasingly recognized the health hazards of cigarettes, the Government—at the Federal, State and Local level—has been able to build enough political support to pass legislation that further discourages smoking.

What does this have to do with climate change? The key to addressing climate change is providing the public with clear information from a credible, objective, and authoritative source that demonstrates the threat of global climate change. The politicized debate in the news is not enough to bring about this change alone and may actually be counterproductive. Perhaps, as with smoking, this message needs to be delivered by a credible and respected, preferably non-partisan, government leader—based upon an unbiased review of available scientific studies. The threat of climate change is one that cannot be addressed effectively without a significant shift in public attitudes and this change may not be possible if public knowledge of the issue is based only on an infotainment fueled partisan debate.