Why the US Lags Behind the Entire World in Understanding Climate Change

Image via Washington Post

Dire forecasts of the damage climate change will do keep rolling in. Scientists keep warning anyone who'll listen, sometimes at the top of their lungs. Bloggers keep on blogging. But evidently, the message just isn't getting through to Americans. In a recent poll, Americans find climate change to be the lowest priority out of any country in the entire world. That's right; every country polled, including the UK, France, India, China, Chile, Mexico--even Iraq and Palestine--believe climate change is more of an urgent issue than we do.

Carefree on Climate Change in the US
The poll asked the simple question "How high of a priority should the government place on global warming?" and residents from each country responded accordingly.

On a scale of 1-10, the average US citizen believes that climate change is around a 4.71 on the priority-o-meter. By contrast, Mexico rated it about a 9, France, China, Chile and the UK above 8, and India, Russia, and Germany were all above 7. The only countries who were remotely close to us--and still more concerned than we were--were Iraq and Palestine. And you might just say that they've got a couple more urgent problems on their hands at the moment.

I know we've got this recession here, and some health care reforming to do, but if Americans truly understood the consequences of climate change, there's no way we could continually rank it so low (often dead last) on our list of priorities. We'd be too worried that it could ruin our crop yield, threaten our cities with major storms and rising water levels, and maybe eventually literally destroy our country altogether.

Why Doesn't the US Get Climate Change?
So why is it that every other country in the world (that was polled at least) understands the catastrophic potential of climate change, and think it's a higher priority than we do?

As Matt Yglesias points out, the reason could be that Americans have among the highest funded climate change-denial movements in the world--Exxon, for example, still shells out millions of dollars a year to keep climate skepticism alive, well, and well-covered in the media. In other words, a handful of (coal, gas, and oil-funded) climate skeptics could be wielding an awesome amount of influence over the American publics' ability to understand climate change.

If he's right, and the amount of funding for denialists is directly proportional to lower priority ratings in various countries (Yglesias notes we'd have to poll Australia and the Czech Republic, which weren't included in this one, where there's also more funding for denialist movements), that could help explain why there's far more confusion over climate change and less of a cohesive will to act in the US.

The Climate for Free Press
Some climate skeptics will inevitably say that our unparalleled free press is the reason--that people aren't afraid to "speak the truth" about climate change being a hoax and all that in the US, and thus ours are the most truly reflective numbers of how people think. The part about the press' involvement is actually semi-accurate--as has been noted numerable times, our media's (typically important) MO to tell both sides of the story often ends up shooting climate science in the foot.

It gives disproportionate publicity to disreputable studies (if coverage were to accurately reflect the current state of science, there'd be hundreds of stories about studies confirming climate change for every one doubting it) and gives the public the impression there's far more debate over whether climate change is occurring or not. A recent study found that many Americans believed there was still a 'lively debate' amongst the scientific community over both whether climate change is caused by humans, and whether the theory of evolution is valid. In reality, of course, there is no such debate over either.

O fine lines, and gray areas! How difficult ye are to discern! After all, I wouldn't argue in favor of suppressing information or reportage--but reporting bad studies and misinformation isn't truthful to audiences seeking an accurate understanding of the issues. And airing faulty studies from climate skeptics in the press immediately gives them unwarranted credibility.

Ending Mass Climate Change Dissent
Just about every post I write that mentions climate change in the headline receives at least a comment or two about how climate change is some liberal conspiracy or implies that not believing in global warming somehow renders the commenter an audacious free thinker (and I'll most certainly get some on this one). Here. On TreeHugger. You know, a blog dedicated to environmental causes--the biggest of which is by far climate change.

So let me talk personally to you for a moment: I'm sorry, but it's real. I'd take you through the standard, step-by-step 'yes, if you believe in science, unfortunately you sorta have to believe in climate change' argument myself, but Joe Romm does a much better, more succinct job of that than I can.

American climate skeptics, listen to me. Please. Climate change is not left wing dogma. I know it's fun to pick sides, and to fancy yourself free of the bondage of the liberal media or whatever (we all, myself included, seek the sense of intellectual uniqueness that comes from bucking a seemingly established belief system in our own ways). But I can not iterate enough that the fact remains that the vast majority of scientists has confirmed and reconfirmed through peer-reviewed study after study that global temperatures are warming, and that greenhouse gases we humans are emitting are speeding the process up. It's fact, insofar as you accept the basic tenets of science. And we can no longer afford to be the least understanding, most lackadaisical, and least concerned nation in the world when it comes to climate change.

More on Climate Change in America
Climate Change to Take a Bite Out of the Big Apple
Climate Change Will Drag US into Conflict: John Kerry

Tags: Global Climate Change | United States

Best of TreeHugger