We canâ''t improve on the headline the editors of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media put on their recent story: â''Gallup Poll Finds More Americans Less Concerned about Global Warming.â'' Yes, even as scientists and opinion leaders are sounding louder alarms about the dangers of global warming, the broad public is getting more skeptical. Whatâ''s going on?
The latest Gallup poll, as reported in the Yale Forum story, finds that 41 percent of Americans consider alarmist news reports about climate change to be exaggerated, while 57 percent regard the reports as correct or underestimated. In a 2006 Gallup poll, in contrast, 66 percent regarded reports generally as correct or underestimated, while just 30 percent considered reports exaggerated. Just as Yale summarizes, more Americans are less concerned about global warming.
In a discussion of American attitudes and news coverage, carried concurrently by Yaleâ''s Environment 360 website, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert reflects on the situation. Kolbert, author of a New Yorker series that appeared in book form as Field Notes from a Catastrophe, recalls that climate change often is characterized as a â''slow moving catastrophe,â'' one thatâ''s largely invisible until itâ''s too late. She quotes John McCain as having expressed skepticism about â''whether our political system can deal with a problem like this.â'' Kolbert concludes that â''the media have contributed to the general sense of it not being an urgent problem because itâ''s not the lead story of the paper every day.â''
My take, for what itâ''s worth, is rather differentâ''almost the opposite. In the last few years, with polls regularly reporting that Americans broadly think of themselves as more concerned about climate change than they take scientists and opinion leaders to be, the view has taken hold among journalists that they are to blame for having reported both sides of the climate debate, as if both sides were equally valid. Media coverage of climate debates has become more one-sided.
Why then has the public become more skeptical rather than less, even as professional skeptics have become less skeptical, scientists have become more alarmist, and journalists have focused more attention on the alarmists? In my view itâ''s because climate coverage has become repetitive and overly insistent, without being more probing and analytical. The effect has been, I submit, to make some of the public feel itâ''s being railroaded.
The debates are over about whether the world is getting warmer, about whether human activity is an important factor in that warming, and whether the consequences could be serious. People know all that and are getting tired of hearing it. What people want to know is: just how serious could the consequences be? To what extent can they be averted? What is it worth paying to minimize adverse effects of warming? These are the debates--in which scientists and policy economists are sharply dividedâ''that are not getting adequately covered in the press.
Too often, global warming is portrayed as something that can be simply stopped, consequences as something that can be simply prevented. But thatâ''s not the case, and all reasonably informed people know that too. So, I submit, people are tired of being talked down to, of being told things they already know, and not being told about things they need to know about.