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Why aren’t we more worried about global warming?

The world’s leaders on science and public policy have begun meeting in Durban, South Africa, to create a framework for dealing with global warming. It is the seventeenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 17). After seventeen meetings, the globe is still warming, and the clock on the Kyoto agreement is about to run out.

Emission of CO2 haven’t been reduced. I reported here earlier this month that the world added an additional 6 percent to the total CO2 load just last year. At that rate it will be impossible for COP 17 to reach its announced goals of holding global warming down to 2 degrees C. A business-as-usual approach will see warming two or three times higher than that. If that happens, things will get ugly. No scientist disagrees with that statement.

A recent University of Illinois research project confirms what a number of other studies have concluded: Nearly all published atmospheric scientists in the world agree that the planet is warming and humans are causing it. However, a recent study by the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University shows that the average American isn’t so sure.

Dr. Edward Maibach is the center’s director and oversaw the research project. He told me: “Two out of three Americans believe there is a lot of debate among the scientists about climate change. Of course, it is known that 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists and experts are in agreement that the world is warming and human activity is driving that change. So, there is a huge disconnect between the actual science and what the American public believes.”  Click here for the George Mason research projects.

Dr. Edward Maibach
Dr. Edward Maibach

That disconnect extends to the upper reaches of Congress and the largest portion of the current crop of Republican presidential candidates. That disconnect may explain why the United States, one of the two top emitters of CO2, is not a big player at the COP 17 meetings.  

Dr. Maibach told me that the disconnect may be created by the way global warming is communicated to the public. He says that doomsday proclamations don’t work very well.

“People must believe this is a solvable problem,” Maibach said. “They have to believe this is not too big and beyond us. They have to understand that this is not just in God’s hands.”

Maibach told me: “The more research we do, the more I’m convinced that we are way overselling the risk and way underselling the ways we can pursue solutions.”

Solutions vs. frightening scenarios
Dr. Maibach says people respond to solution information better than frightening scenarios. “It is the risk information that tends to drive people away.”
Then Americans should be running for their lives, and toward rejection of the science based on three concurrent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the International Energy Agency (IEA).  

The IPCC released a report predicting a greater frequency of extreme weather events caused by global warming. The OECD reported that if global warming isn’t tamed, the world will reach a tipping point after which nothing we can do will set things right. The IEA said much the same thing, pointing out that, based on those fossil-fuel projects already under construction or planned, the planet is poised for irreversible damage in just five years. I haven’t mentioned the frightening takes of the Pentagon and the CIA about different kinds of threats from global warming. Think war, mass immigration, famine and disease. Scary stuff.

Maibach says the reports serve a purpose. “They are helpful in urging us to understand what future scenarios will look like if we don’t take action,” he said.” But, that has a tendency to become the conversation.”

He’s tested different approaches to getting the message across to people.  

Maibach’s team at George Mason produced three fake news stories framing global warming in different contexts: national security, human health and as an environmental issue.

“We put these stories before two groups we called ‘doubtful’ and ‘dismissive,'” he said.

Doubtful folks aren’t sure they believe the science, and dismissive folks say the science is a hoax or it is no big deal.

“What we found,” said Maibach, “is that when you talk about the benefits of taking action, particularly the benefits to human health, that’s when you can have a conversation.”

Maibach says the respondents found the information helpful and hopeful — “as opposed to information about risks, which they flat-out reject.”

Republican candidates
But what of all the information people are getting from political candidates?  I asked him, in particular, the positions taken by many of the GOP presidential candidates and their statements in televised debates.

“It is clear,” Maibach said, “they are trying to capture the Tea Party, which is unified on this issue — dismissing the threat of global warming. But, I think the key message is to not write off the Republicans, not to be condescending to the Republicans. You want to double down. Scientists need to be trusted by the Republicans, because when they trust you, they listen to you.”

Dr. Jon Krosnick
Stanford University
Dr. Jon Krosnick

There is another study Republicans might consider. It was produced by Dr. Jon Krosnick at Stanford University and demonstrates that voters show a preference for candidates who take positive positions on the environment. It works for Republicans as well as Democrats. Polling shows the vast majority of Americans believe the planet is warming, even though they continue to believe there is still a scientific debate on the effects of CO2. (See report here.)

Maibach reiterates his central point in terms we can all understand: “We all tend to be overly busy, dealing with our most immediate personal concerns. When some distant relative at our Thanksgiving table wants to talk about global warming risks, again, we’re probably going to duck out of that conversation. Conversely, if she wants to talk about climate change as America’s best economic opportunity of the 21st century, that’s a conversation we may want to have.”

Armed with this kind of information about the risks, and the attitudes of the American public, one would think that the United States will take the lead in Durban at the COP 17 meeting. It won’t. Our leaders won’t take the risk.

And that might be the scariest fact of them all.

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Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/29/2011 - 11:36 am.

    I don’t know that the problem is a poor response to apocalyptic scenarios as much as it is the mainstream media’s “balance” fetish. The three percent of climate scientists who are naysayers are given equal treatment by the media (“On the other hand, some doubt this conclusion.”). Whether that practice can be blamed on the journalistic practice of not seeing a story if there isn’t a fight, or on a pathologocal fear of being labeled “biased,” the bottom line is that the reporting is inaccurate.

    Of course, any accurate reporting will still run up against the contrariety rampant among certain types. All they need to know about global warming is that Al Gore publicized it–therefore, it must be wrong! Never mind the science, that liberal/socialist said it, so it must be false. Once again, reason loses to reflex.

  2. Submitted by John Ferman on 11/29/2011 - 12:23 pm.

    One of the very earliest book on what today is climate change would Gordon Rattray Taylor’s book entitled The Doomsday Book published in 1972. In it some prominent, respected scientist warnings were quoted, the earlise was in 1957. Then a small minority of the scientific community endorsed the warnings. Now 40 years of data has tumbled in and the scientific opinion has been forced to change. What has not changed is how the message is communicated. What needs to be done is to communicate how the data from all the sectors of the earth system tie together to form the result we see now emerging. The earth is a large system of land masses, oceans, and a gaseous atmosphere; and each has sub-systems and all interact positvely or negatively. So it is not enough to report on individual glaciers or individual coral reefs. These events are connected and the how is not being made clearly to the public. Of course, many other parallels may be drawn and it will take a talented writer to explain the story of climate change.

  3. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 11/29/2011 - 01:03 pm.

    This article glosses over the enormous stake the fossil fuel industry has in the denial of climate change. They have poured money into confusing and misinforming the public about the harmful effects of CO2. Their power and influence over the political debate on this issue is the true obstacle to finding and implementing solutions.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/29/2011 - 01:11 pm.

    Why aren’t we more worried about global warming?

    For the simple fact that a temperature rise of a couple of degrees in the next hundred years doesn’t sound like it means much more than a few more days of air conditioning in the summer.

    The careful “science-speak” of warming not being specifically responsible for a particular observed condition means that there is no consequence that anyone can point to and say, “See!”

    And besides, most of us will not be here in the next century, especially the current crop of decision makers.

    Those are probably as deep as the resistance goes for most people. Make an impression with respect to these issues and perhaps it would become a “hotter” topic.

  5. Submitted by Ray Marshall on 11/29/2011 - 01:31 pm.

    Wikipedia: “The concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in Earth’s atmosphere is approximately 392 ppm (parts per million) by volume as of 2011[update][1] and rose by 2.0 ppm/yr during 2000–2009. 40 years earlier, the rise was only 0.9 ppm/yr, showing not only increasing concentrations, but also a rapid acceleration of concentrations.”

    An increase of 2 parts per million per year in an atmosphere containing 392 parts per million doesn’t sound like much to me: 1/2 of 1% per year.

    Especially when 392 parts per million of CO2 is only about 4/10,000 of the atmosphere.

    What is the Doomsday number when catastrophes begin?

  6. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/29/2011 - 01:41 pm.

    This is a good article that acknowledges the problem of getting people to think and talk about this major problem. But when you have the President of the United States, who not only has acknowledged the problem of climate change and human contribution to it but ran on promises to do something about it, ignoring the problem, we really do have a problem. Cancelling the Keystone XL Pipeline would have been a chance for the President to get out in front on the climate change issue. Instead, he kicked the can down the road. If he doesn’t get re-elected, then I’m sure a Republican president will approve it.

    The Alberta tar sands issue represents one of the biggest environmental challenges today. It’s a step to “extreme energy” which has already caused Canada to violate the Kyoto Agreement limits on greenhouse gas emission which it had signed. The State Department EIS scarcely mentions this problem. Although the US never agreed to the Kyoto Protocols by having it confirmed by the Senate, President Clinton did sign it. If Obama was serious about doing something about climate change, he would enforce President Clinton’s commitment to f the Kyoto Agreement and lean on Canada to uphold its end of that bargain too.

  7. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 11/29/2011 - 01:52 pm.

    Scientists keep trying to prove the case. How many times can you prove what’s been proven for a long time? It doesn’t matter how much evidence is presented, because the science deniers are very well funded and will never go away just because they finally see some piece of evidence.

    We need scientists, and reality-connected politicians, to stop pretending there’s a debate or any persuading to be done over whether it’s real and man-made, and state clearly until it sinks in that the debate is long over, and the only thing to talk about is solving it. The more we try to persuade deniers and doubters, the more we permit the belief that there’s reasonable doubt. We should move on to solutions, and those who continue to deny science should properly be dismissed as a fringe outside the scientific debate.

  8. Submitted by Susanna Patterson on 11/29/2011 - 04:14 pm.

    Two things:
    1. People do not want to believe it’s true, which makes them vulnerable to anyone who casts doubt on the facts.
    2. Those with vested interests in continuing business as usual have added dire predictions of the “economic disaster” they claim will result from any attempt to cut carbon emissions and switch over to renewable energy sources.

    The wealthy can buy their way out of the effects of climate destruction for a lot longer than the poor in this country — let alone the destitute in the rest of the world.
    It is a crisis fueled by greed, cynicism, and the belief that “people get what they deserve.”
    “Rugged individualism” and “free market solutions” will do nothing to help us out with this one. We must develop a new way of seeing which puts compassion and community first.

  9. Submitted by Richard Callahan on 11/29/2011 - 04:41 pm.

    To Ray Marshall

    350 ppm

  10. Submitted by Dan Johnson on 11/29/2011 - 05:41 pm.

    I think that Al Gore hit the nail on the head. It is indeed an inconvenient truth. It requires a change in the affluent, wasteful lifestyle to which most citizens of the US have grown accustom.

  11. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/29/2011 - 06:36 pm.

    Amen Jerilyn (#3) and John Erik (#6).

    The American people are inundated with false information about global warming — pretty much all funded by the energy industry — that appears in television commercials about “clean coal” plus our need for oil, nuclear and coal for “a long time to come.” We must therefore drill and dig and buy dirty tar-sands oil and relax those onerous regulations that prevent progress in extraction. Plus Fox News, of course, and right-wing politicians.

    The Koch brothers and their corporate ALEC members and right-wing think tanks located in every state provide money to office-holders/seekers and op-ed pieces for print media.

  12. Submitted by Steven Bailey on 11/29/2011 - 06:38 pm.

    If using fear wasn’t effective to corral the “base” the republicans wouldn’t have been nearly as successful over the last decades. There may be another reason people don’t want to believe in climate change and it was written by Upton Sinclair a long time ago.

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”

  13. Submitted by Stephen Thoms on 11/29/2011 - 07:19 pm.

    The reason most people are not worried about mad-made global warming is because of the number of false statements that have been made. Everyone know the world has been cooler and warmer in the past. Even history studies over the last 2,000 years tells us that. Why are we now finding old farmyards that were previously under ice in Greenland? (Why is Greenland called Greenland)?

    When you read about some floods which are the biggest for the last 60 years, what does that tell you? The floods were bigger 60 years ago. Even 60 years ago is nothing in climate terms.

    Computer modelling is not evidence. Possibly more money is spent on financial modelling than climate modelling. The financial models four years back look a bit sick now.

    There are many many earth and related scientists who have signed petitions or otherwise shown they do not accept what the IPCC etc state. The press mostly do not discuss them but people in private conversations do.

  14. Submitted by Robert Hoppe on 11/29/2011 - 08:53 pm.

    We are not more worried about global warming because in spite of increased amounts of the trace gas CO2 released into the atmosphere, there has been no statistically-significant global warming since 1995 (per Prof. Phil Jones, Dir. of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia).

    We are also not more worried because the science is not settled on catastrophic man-made global warming. Researchers continue to disagree and warmers might consider a recent study from Oregon State University.

    The study in the journal Science found that global temperatures appear to be far less sensitive to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere than originally estimated.

    This sounds prosaic, but it’s a bombshell — another in a long line of revelations showing the scientific fraud at the heart of the anti-global warming movement.

    The study’s findings are simple and devastating. “This implies that the effect of CO2 on climate is less than previously thought,” said Oregon State University’s Andreas Schmittner, the study’s main author.

    Even with a doubling of CO2 from levels that existed before the Industrial Revolution, the study found a likely increase in Earth’s temperature only from about 3.1 degrees Fahrenheit to 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

    That compares with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report, which predicted an increase of 3.6 degrees to 8.6 degrees.

    Coupled with the fact the average global temperature hasn’t increased at all over the past decade — even though under all of the global warming models now in use, this is impossible — warmist ideology is crumbling. There is no climate armageddon on the horizon.

    But don’t expect global warm-mongers to admit this. As we’ve discovered from a new trove of emails sent by leading European climate-change scientists, there has been a vast, global green conspiracy to silence scientific opposition to the idea — even to the point of falsifying data and ruining others’ careers.

  15. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/29/2011 - 09:39 pm.

    The reason most people aren’t worried about global warming is because most people aren’t stupid. Rather than accept the dire warnings of people who have career and financial incentives to say such things, most thinking people form their opinion based on personal observations of the real world in which they live.

    And it doesn’t help “the cause” when famous people are trotted out to deliver talking points like when Ted Danson said in 1988 that the oceans would be dead in ten years or Al Gore telling a German audience in 2005 that the “entire North Polar ice cap will be gone in five years.”

    You know, stuff like that.

  16. Submitted by Jim Dawson on 11/30/2011 - 03:04 am.

    In response to #14, Robert Hoppe, please see a discussion of the study in Science by the editor of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. Sorry for the long address, but it can be found at:

    The Science study is interesting, but its findings are anything but simple, or devastating. Nor does it have anything to do with revealing some underlying scientific fraud.

    The Knight Tracker is a product of the MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and will give you some insight into how experienced science journalists talk to each other about science coverage.

    And please, when you are reading through the discussions, try to leave your politics at the door.

  17. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/30/2011 - 05:58 am.

    A column in yesterday’s (11/29/11) Wall Street Journal by Brett Stephens addresses this question.

  18. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 11/30/2011 - 09:18 am.

    The fear mongers always talk about far-off places that we can never get to see for ourselves like the Arctic Circle. We observe our own locale, and what do we see? Farmers plant in April and harvest in September – just like they have always done. It’s not that difficult to see the hoax here.

  19. Submitted by Mike Lhotka on 11/30/2011 - 12:23 pm.

    Phil Jones, Director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, said that due to natural variability we do not expect to see each year warmer than the last, but the long-term trend is clear.

    “The HadCRUT3 record, supported by the other records, is one indicator amongst several which provide overwhelming evidence that the climate has warmed,” he said.

    “Independent researchers analysing long term trends of these indicators, have seen an increase in air, sea and land temperatures, rising sea-levels, and decreasing Arctic sea-ice, spring snow cover in the northern hemisphere and glacier extent.” Tue, 29 Nov 2011

  20. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/30/2011 - 02:57 pm.

    Comment #19 addresses the question of warming, but not the question of the cause.

    Generally speaking, it has warmed a fraction of a degree (0.8C) since 1850. Climate research has revealed that the earth has gone through warming and cooling cycles. What prevents the cause of these long ago cycles to be at play presently?

    The logic goes like this, “because we know what is happening, we know the cause!” Really?

  21. Submitted by Mitch Odahowski on 11/30/2011 - 02:58 pm.

    Mr. Shelby;

    While I have always agreed with your perspective on climate change, I wonder why you will not address the Death of Journalism? What I would like to hear is your real opinion on Dog / Duckgate. Not the empty answers you had on Almanac, but real analysis of the monumental failure.

    Everyone knows the business is run by people who should not be in charge making journalistic decisions. How can you not be personally irate after watching the systematic deconstruction of the WCCO newsroom and the continuing lowering of standards? How can you sit and watch the failures of the WCCO newsroom tarnish the legacies of Dave Moore, yourself and the countless other journalists (mostly shown the door in a systematic expunging) who once proudly called WCCO their home?

    You sir, better than anyone else in town, can make WCCO admit it made a mistake and take appropriate measures to rectify the situation.

    Mr. Shelby, start acting like Ted Koppel instead of Ted Baxter.

  22. Submitted by Don Shelby on 11/30/2011 - 03:30 pm.

    Mitch at #21,
    You had me moving in your direction, until the last line. I was prepared to share with you what I’ve been doing on this matter, and what can be done, and why things like this are happening all over the journalism map. If they follow my advice, it will all come out publicly. But, who would listen to Ted Baxter?

  23. Submitted by Dale Hoogeveen on 11/30/2011 - 03:53 pm.

    #4 the evidence actually is visible, just look at perennials and shrubs. Look at trees, even the Arbor Day Foundation has adjusted their hardiness zones north, significantly. You don’t have to go to the Arctic, just look around your neighborhood. I planted peaches this spring a variety that has originally been rated zone 5 but with the USDA refusing to update the hardiness zones the nursery (Stark Brothers is the one I bought from) has quietly moved a number of zone 5 orchard trees to zone 4.

    #18 Traditionally planting for corn and soybeans in this country began in May. Now a significant number of farmers are planting corn in April, they didn’t use to plant those tender crops that early. They are also using longer season hybrids for the greater possible crops. I put out my tomato plants well ahead of Memorial Day these days with little worry about frosts. When my family moved to Minneapolis in 1979 from south central Iowa, it was the recommendation from the Landscape Arboretum that one protect one’s tomatoes from frost until after Memorial Day.

    Tomorrow is the first day of December and my lawn is just starting to freeze. My car sits outside and I have only had to scrape the windshield one time. The effects are obvious. You don’t even have to play around with the science to see that things are much milder than they used to be.

    The media could report that of course, but the publisher might very well fire an editor that allowed it probably on orders from over his head. The average person shouldn’t even need that; all one needs to do is walk around one’s yard and around one’s neighborhood. The evidence is all over.

  24. Submitted by Don Shelby on 11/30/2011 - 06:24 pm.

    Mr. Hoppe,
    Your Phil Jones reference is out of context. The warming trend continues, and no science disputes it. The World Meteorological Organization just place 2011 in the top ten warmest years since record keeping. Not as warm as 2010 which is tied for first.
    You may be laboring under the misapprehension that denialists would have you believe. By selecting the high el Nino year of 1998, the warmest, no year until 2010 matched it. So, you get a partial win by saying that it was warmer 13 years ago. It was, thanks to natural variability fo the el Nino, la Nina cycle. We are currently in a la Nina cycle and should force our temperatures down, not up. The statistical trend line using all data shows the temperatures increasing. But, if you are getting your facts from news articles in Investors…well, I can’t fault your findings. It is simply a repeat of that denier publication. If you really want to see what the most recent take on Schmittner e al, go to this site

    You will see that what Schmittner found is neither original or particularly scary. His findings fall within the error bars of climate sensitivity produced by the IPCC in its analysis of earth’s response to the doubling of CO2.

    Rather than destroy the notion of global warming, the authors have responded by saying that to draw such a conclusion from their work is an error.


  25. Submitted by John Clark on 11/30/2011 - 07:57 pm.

    Mr. Selby’s article brings up some very interesting points. Convincing the public, especially here in the United States, that global climate warming has occurred over the past 200 years is the first hurdle. The second, much higher hurdle is convincing this same population that this phenomenon is caused by human activity, and that public policy should be directed towards mitigating these causes.

    I read the article suggested by No.14, and the Wall Street Journal article suggested by No. 17. It is quite clear that regardless of the scientific evidence presented, there is a highly opinionated and highly motivated group that insists that climate science is a hoax and conspiracy. These views seem to be based on the notions that climate scientists are only in it for the grant money, and that any efforts to reduce C02 will interfere with a laissez faire style of commerce.

    If one is willing to look beyond these preconceptions (and ideology), and actually look at the methodology and evidence that mainstream climate scientists use to arrive at their conclusions, here is a good site to browse. This site is a very intelligent, two way technical forum on the topic, that fortunately, does not allow ranting, or the usual name calling.

  26. Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/01/2011 - 08:57 am.

    Why aren’t we more worried about global warming?

    In email 4195, it seems that Dr. Phil Jones is concerned about a lack of warming, in a message to his colleagues.

    “Tim, Chris, I hope you’re not right about the lack of warming lasting till about 2020.

    I seem to be getting an email a week from skeptics saying where’s the warming gone. I know the warming is on the decadal scale, but it would be nice to wear their smug grins away.”

  27. Submitted by Robert Hoppe on 12/01/2011 - 12:58 pm.

    Mr. Shelby,
    Statistically-significant global WARMING hasn’t occurred since 1995 according to Prof. Phil Jones in a commonly referenced quote from a BBC interview in 2010.

    Warming alarmists need to show continued warming increases or there is no crisis. Where are the dire consequences of a .8 degree Celsius warming over the last 150 years?

    History shows global warming, like the Medieval Warm Period, is beneficial to mankind.

    Regarding your comment that “The warming trend continues”, it would be more accurately stated “the unexpected global warming standstill” continues.

  28. Submitted by Mitch Odahowski on 12/01/2011 - 01:09 pm.


    my apologies for the Ted Baxter comment.

    Hell, seeing what passes for anchors these days on TV I would settle for Floyd Robertson and Earl Camembert.

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