Public opinion polls show a significant increase in the number of Americans who support strong climate action. Deeper digging shows this support is superficial, too thin to drive the rapid sociopolitical change now required. For the first time, however, a small, but measurable number of Americans — probably no more than 3% — identify climate change as the greatest threat. U.S. environmentalists’ carefully buffered climate narrative, calculated to not frighten the majority, does not engage these "three percenters."

A significant shift in U.S. public opinion on climate has been measured in recent polls. 27% of those polled in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll between May 4-6, 2007, said global warming is "extremely important" and 26% "very important." 33% believe that global warming is the "single biggest environmental problem facing the world," according to a April 5-10, 2007 ABC News/Washington Post Poll, up from 16% in March. Public support for "immediate action" on climate has increased to 34% in January, 2007, from 23% in 1999, according to a NBC/Wall Street Journal tracking poll.

When asked to choose what is most important — either in open-ended polling questions or picking one issue from a list — climate change, and environmental issues in general, are barely mentioned:

  • 0% mention Harris Poll, 9/8-11, 2006 (open ended)
  • 0% mention ABC News/Washington Post, 12/7-11, 2006 (open ended)
  • 7% "the environment and global warming" NBC News/Wall Street Journal, 3/2-5, 2007 (list)
  • 1% "the environment" Diego/Hotline Poll, 3/29-4/1, 2007 (list)
  • 5% "environment/pollution"Gallup Poll, 4/23-26, 2007 (open ended)
  • 3% "the environment" CBS/New York Times 5/18-23, 2007

(All polls are available at PollingReport.com.)

The dichotomy is most stark in a handful of polls with direct and open-ended questions. In a May, 2007 CBS News/New York Times poll, 70% agreed that "global warming is having a serious impact now," but no respondents volunteered climate when asked to name the most important problem facing the nation.

More Americans are concerned with maintaining supplies of inexpensive gas and oil — picked as the top problem by 3-7% in several polls (CBS 5/07, Gallup 4/07, Diego 3/07, NBC 3/07, ABC 12/06, Newsweek 10/06) — than addressing climate change.

Even other environmental issues are ranked ahead of climate change. The 35% of the public with "a great deal" of concern over rising sea levels in ABC News/Washington Post, April 5-10, 2007 poll are outranked by the 52% who are greatly concerned about ocean pollution.

How do we explain this huge contradiction in the polls?

When asked whether climate climate change is a problem, half of Americans give the response expected of them. Climate change has been elevated to a question of the general good — just as the famine in Ethiopia and "We Are the World" put world hunger it in the spotlight. Climate change in 2007 has all the hallmarks of world hunger in 1985 — when, for a tantalizing moment, hunger action advocates had the ear of Congress, youth were mobilized, major concerts were held, and huge strides seemed within reach.

There are important differences, to be sure, but the key distinction between climate change and world hunger — that we risk the collapse of civilization and the extinction of more than half of the world’s remaining species — is largely absent in the public debate. This is a conscious decision of U.S. environmentalists to downplay the precautionary view of climate change risk, which our fundraisers and pollsters advise is too frightening, in a bid for majority support.

We’ve won the majority, but it is too soft for the task ahead.

The silver lining in this overall bleak picture is that for the first time, there is a very small — around 3% — but measurable group of Americans who are convinced that the world as we know it is on the line.

Our greatest problem is that we are not speaking to these folks. "Step it Up" gave us a hint of the potential to be tapped, but it is a long way from the ad hoc effort of Bill McKibben and a handful of young organizers to shifting the U.S. environmental organization-foundation communications complex.

As a first step, the architects of our two-decade-long policy of addressing the general public with a happy-peppy climate story must accept the verdict of our terrible performance in the polls and open a deep, searching, and swift inquiry into alternatives.

Secondly, U.S. environmentalists must focus our energy, resources, and time on the 3% of Americans who get it — our true base of political power — and stop worrying about offending the majority.

Our moderate U.S. domestic emissions policies, appeasement of the architects of fossil fuel strategy (like BP), continued respect for the niceties of polite convention, and utter failure by word, deed, or personal example to acknowledge the existential crisis to which everyone who accepts reality is now consigned must seem irrelevant at best to the climate "three percenters." If U.S. environmentalists do not lead, we will be left in the dust.