Global Warming: No Big Deal?

>A majority of people in most places agree that the earth’s climate really is changing in dramatic ways, that human activity is at least part of the cause, and that we ought to act now to address the problem. But when you ask people about their personal willingness to do something about it—like pay more for gasoline or electricity, or moderate our consumptive lifestyles—that majority turns into a minority.

Why? The facts are the facts, right? Well, not really. How risky we think something is depends on how those facts feel. People don’t tend to worry as much about risks that can’t happen to them. Which helps explain the perception gap on climate change. Consider a survey by Yale climate change research scientist Anthony Leiserowitz. The survey asked Americans, “Who will be most harmed by climate change?” Respondents said that climate change would mostly affect:

• Plant and animal species: 45 percent
• Future generations of people: 44 percent
• People in developing countries: 31 percent
• People in other industrialized nations: 22 percent
• People in the United States: 21 percent
• Your local community: 13 percent
• Your family: 11 percent
• You personally: 10 percent

Those categories in italics (my emphasis) identify how few people worry that climate change will affect them—about one person in ten. Nearly five times as many people in the United States are more worried that climate change will affect polar bears and plants than are worried about themselves. Small wonder, then, that the study found more support for generic ways of dealing with climate change, like funding renewable energy research, and less support for ideas that suggest concrete personal costs, like increasing the gasoline tax by 25 cents.

This isn’t just in the United States. A Pew Global Studies survey in 2006 asked, “How much do you personally worry about global warming?” Fewer than half the respondents worried “a great deal” about climate change as a personal threat in France (46 percent), Turkey (41 percent), Germany (30 percent), Indonesia (38 percent, in a nation that includes 6,000 inhabited islands), Great Britain (26 percent), China (20 percent), and, bringing up the rear, the United States (19 percent). In this survey, roughly half of Americans and one-third of Chinese said that they had no personal worry about climate change at all.

Then there’s the gap between the believers and the non-believers. Some look at the facts and see potential disaster, while others see the same evidence and call climate change a hoax. Where does that gap come from? This is where the “cultural cognition of risk” comes into play. The position you take on an issue like climate change will in part be a reflection of your basic attitudes about the ideal society. Do you prefer a hierarchical society, with firm lines of authority and fixed economic and social classes? An egalitarian society, free of imposed economic and social limitations? An individualist society, with little government involvement? Or a communitarian system, with significant government and societal intervention to solve problems?

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David Ropeik is an instructor at the Harvard School of Continuing Education and the author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts.

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