Last week I reported on the wide and growing partisan divide in U.S. public opinion over global warming: self-identified Democrats are 39 percentage points more likely than their Republican counterparts to rate climate change a serious problem. But what puzzled me most was the 13-point drop in concern among Republicans since 1999. Call me naÃ¯ve, but with all the scientific evidence that's been piling up on the issue -- accompanied by increasing media attention -- I guess I expected slow (though perhaps reluctant) increases in concern all across the political spectrum. Years of rising global temperatures, melting sea ice, and solidifying scientific consensus ought to have converted at least some honest skeptics, right? A big report released last week by Pew, charting two decades of American political values and core attitudes, provides some clues about what's going on. Typical Republicans, circa 1999, haven't necessarily found their belief in global warming shaken over the years. Instead, for whatever combination of reasons, people who believe in global warming are drifting away from the Party.
Since it came out about a year ago, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's climate change documentary, seems to have pushed the issue into mainstream consciousness. Millions saw the movie itself -- but they were largely true believers anyway. Perhaps more importantly, Gore's Academy Award has earned him a wider audience among the potentially undecided: 39.9 million TV viewers tuned in for the Academy Awards themselves, plus 49 million saw Gore on Oprah. Heck, combined, that's more than the total number of people who voted for George W. Bush in 2006! It's almost as good as being on American Idol. But, how much effect has this media blitz had on attitudes among Americans? Sadly, it's not as dramatic as you may think.
The old thinking, as author and thinker Bill McKibben explains in today's LA Times, goes like this: bigger is always better, growth is good no matter what, and a booming stock market is the ultimate measure of our success. McKibben illustrates the kind of lopsided priorities that naturally flow when we're ruled by the bottom line, pointing to a scarcely-reported White House report that said the U.S. would be pumping out almost 20 percent more greenhouse gases in 2020 than we did in 2000, our contribution to climate change going steadily up -- against all warnings to the contrary. That's a pretty stunning piece of information -- a hundred times more important than, say, the jittery Dow Jones industrial average that garnered a hundred times the attention. How is it even possible? How, faced with the largest crisis humans have yet created for themselves, have we simply continued with business as usual? New thinking, by contrast, might go something like this: measure what matters.
A new international poll finds worldwide agreement that climate change is a threat. Opinions are split, however on the nuts and bolts -- in particular, whether to act immediately and whether countermeasures are worth the investment. Even so, a window of opportunity seems to have opened that would allow leaders with bold solutions to spark international cooperation and make real strides. The poll included 17 countries, representing more than 55 percent of the world population (though not all the questions were asked in each of the countries). Western European countries and Canada* were not included. While global opinion trends are encouraging, the United States -- the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases -- has some catching up to do. That is to say, an attitude adjustment is in order:
Our minds have a limited capacity to comprehend really, really big numbers. At least mine does. A million tons of C02 might as well be a zillion. Twelve and a half million dollars spent every hour on the Iraq war might as well be bazillions. Sometimes we try to fathom the enormities of raw numbers by visualizing them. How often have you heard that something stacked on end would extend to the moon and back? But that never helps me. I can't actually comprehend just how many pop cans, or human DNA particles, or safety pins, or Chevy engines or hot dogs would get me to the moon. It's just a heck of a lot. Luckily for people like me, Seattle artist Chris Jordan has found a way to put big numbers into perspective.
Not only is Schwarzenegger leading California to many firsts in climate policy, he's also leading the way when it comes to talking about global warming. Any savvy politician knows you can't get policy on the books without first winning over your colleagues and constituents. And Arnie is surely one of the savviest politicos around. Here's how he's doing it: First, he taps into Californian pride and shared American values, stressing leadership, innovation, and a call to make history:
When it comes to effective messages, sometimes picture is worth a thousand books by George Lakoff. I'll give you a perfect case of well-intentioned words getting trounced in the marketplace of ideas. You have to see this.
Cascadians on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border share a deep connection to our temperate corner of the world. But if national polling data is any indication of regional opinion, we may not necessarily share the same views when it comes to the fate of our piece of the planet -- or even of the planet itself. Public opinion polling in the two countries shows a boundary between perceptions almost as stark as the national border drawn on a political map. In recent polling by Gallup and Pew, Americans display little concern about the environment and global warming -- far less, as it turns out, than their Canadian counterparts.
The State of the Union address may be just a lot of talk. But considering that each word in these national speeches is painstakingly choreographed, a small phrase for a president can be a giant step for mankind. That's why, when Bush uttered the words "global climate change" before a TV audience of 45.5 million, I nearly jumped out of my seat. He said it! He said it for the first time in any of his seven State of the Union addresses. This is huge. Especially in light of the results from a Pew Research Center poll on global warming that was released Wednesday. Even those few words, when spoken by Bush, may signal a tipping point for Americans who remain on the fence about the reality of climate change and what can be done about it. Check out these numbers: