40 percent in US believe climate change is real, are unworried

In a recent study, a majority of Americans believe that climate change exists, but they aren't very worried. Experts say scientists and politicians need to better communicate its' implications.

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
People march during a rally against climate change in New York, September 21, 2014.

Americans agree that climate change is real and caused by humans, but they aren’t that worried, says a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

In the October survey, 65 percent of those surveyed said “Yes global warming is happening,” and 51 percent said that climate change is “caused entirely or mostly by human activities.” However, only 23 percent were “Extremely or very worried” about global warming, and the highest percent of those polled – 38 percent – were “Not too or not at all worried.” 

So why the disconnect? Experts say Americans have bigger fish to fry.

“In general, there are top issues for people everywhere – having a stable place to live, being able to support your family, health – those are the primary voting issues in American and people everywhere,” Dr. Dana Fisher, Director of the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “At this point, climate change is not seen as a life-or-death issue. It’s just not a voting issue for people.”

Unfortunately, Americans need more extreme side effects from climate change to be adequately worried, says Dr. Fisher. Current “glimmers of future extreme events” such as the California drought and Hurricane Sandy are only felt by sections of the US, and many Americans still have trouble relating the crises to their day-to-day lives. 

“On my list of things that worry me today, global warming is kind of low,” Renata Schram, a 43-year-old service representative from Michigan, told The Associated Press. “Usually when we hear about global warming, everything seems so distant. The sea levels are going to rise, but I find it difficult to find a prediction that tells you how many years exactly.” 

Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, says Americans like Ms. Schram wish someone would fix the climate, but they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. 

“Even for those Americans who do accept it’s happening and that it is caused by humans, they still think of it as distant – distant in time, and distant in space,” Dr. Leiserowitz tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “It is psychologically distant. Not the US, not my state, not my neighborhood. It will be felt by the next generation and only by the polar bears.”

To make climate change a voting issue for Americans, scientists and climate change experts need to understand their audience.

“More facts are not going to fix the problem,” climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University tells The Associated Press. “Nearly every human on the planet has the values they need to care about climate change.” 

“Know your audience. Who are they?” asks Leiserowitz. “They haven’t understood who their audience is. It is not simply a flat our denier or believer. There is no single message that’s going to work for all people.”

Instead of future, intangible threats, Americans need to be convinced that they are set to experience their own climate change challenges.

“The process of climate change is so broad and abstract, it is difficult for people to see climate change as causing this or that,” says Fisher. “After another Sandy or Katrina or Patricia, all of a sudden there will be a lot more political will.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Katharine Hayhoe’s first name.

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