where is the public on climate change?

Our views of our fellow citizens tend to oscillate. If we’re upset about something, we pessimistically assume that most people are stuck on the other side, or else we optimistically want to change their opinions with skillful “communications” and new “messages.” We quickly shift from hope to despair depending on the latest polls or election results.

The reality is surely more complex. People differ a great deal in how much they know and care about any given issue. And most people go through a slow but significant process of learning whenever a new issue arises on the agenda. Their average opinions shift in response to evidence and argument–but not overnight. For instance, if they believe false critiques of the recent health care act, they will not change their minds because of one news program or advertisement. But they will learn the truth over time.

The Public Agenda Foundation has been watching this process develop on the topic of energy and has developed a theory called the public’s “Energy Learning Curve.™”. Public Agenda finds that people currently favor the easy policies (like tax benefits for individuals who conserve energy, supported by 81%), but they oppose more painful and effective policies (like gas taxes to fund renewable energy: 52% against). That’s the current snapshot, but Public Agenda notes, “there are reasons to wonder how well this consensus would stand up under pressure. Our research shows the public does not know critical facts about the problem.” For instance, “52 percent thought that by reducing smog, the United States has come ‘a long way’ in addressing global warming.”

Looking more closely, Public Agenda finds the public divided into four groups, “the Anxious (40 percent), the Greens (24 percent), the Disengaged (19 percent) and the Climate Change Doubters (17 percent).” So what we have is not a public opinion on energy and climate change. There are many opinions, some grounded in fact and some in prejudice, some passionately held and some that are off-the-cuff responses to the pollster. These opinions will change; in which direction remains to be seen.