On Wednesday, the Gallup polling organization released its annual survey of environmental issues. Among the key findings:
Although a majority of Americans believe the seriousness of global warming is either correctly portrayed in the news or underestimated, a record-high 41% now say it is exaggerated. This represents the highest level of public skepticism about mainstream reporting on global warming seen in more than a decade of Gallup polling on the subject.
Gallup noted “the trend in the ‘exaggerated’ response has been somewhat volatile since 2001.” As recently as 2006 and as long ago as 1998, over sixty percent of Americans thought the news media was correctly portraying or underestimating the threat of global warming, while only thirty percent thought otherwise.
“All of the past year’s uptick in cynicism about the seriousness of global warming coverage occurred among Americans 30 and older,” Gallup reported. Republicans are also increasingly and far more likely than Democrats to believe the media’s coverage is exaggerated—a trend that Gallup has been following since 1997—but “this year marks a relatively sharp increase among independents as well,” the report stated.
In addition to the conclusions about coverage, Gallup also found that worries about global warming rank dead last among eight environmental issues. At the top of the list are concerns about the cleanliness of availability of water, followed by air pollution, deforestation, and the extinction of plants and animals.
Six in 10 Americans indicate that they are highly worried about global warming, including 34% who are worried “a great deal” and 26% “a fair amount.” Overall worry is similar to points at the start of the decade, but is down from 66% a year ago and from 65% in 2007.
Ironically, the Gallup poll is being released in the wake of a handful of recent studies, which have found that the impacts of warming will be felt for 1,000 years even if greenhouse-gas emissions are cut; that those emissions have been rising faster than expected; and that sea levels may rise much faster than predicted. So what gives?
New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin and American University professor Matthew Nisbet—both of whom wrote blog posts about the Gallup environment survey—have been arguing for some time that hyperbolic predictions about the catastrophic impacts of climate change are counterproductive and feed accusations of global warming “alarmism.” Ironically, in attempting to make his case, Revkin has come under fire from a number of environmentally minded bloggers who would like to see media coverage be much more adamant about the threat of climate change and the urgent need to find solutions.
Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm, one Revkin’s biggest critics, thinks that the reason for the lingering public apathy is not that the media has exaggerated the consequences of warming, but rather that it has downplayed them. A number of journalists, such as freelancer Keith Kloor, who also had a good analysis of the Gallup environment survey, counter that bloggers like Romm ignore their own role in fostering perceptions of alarmism. Like Nisbet, Kloor thinks that many of the reasons for public intransigence lie outside the media. Indeed, Gallup itself suggested that might be case:
Gallup has documented declines in public concern about the environment at times when other issues, such as a major economic downturn or a national crisis like 9/11, absorbed Americans’ attention. To some extent that may be true today, given the troubling state of the U.S. economy. However, the solitary drop in concern this year about global warming, among the eight specific environmental issues Gallup tested, suggests that something unique may be happening with the issue.
Yet the solitary drop in concern for global warming should not be that surprising. The perception of risk is clearly tied to immediacy. The Gallup survey found that the number of Americans who think the effects of global warming have already begun has dropped and, though the change was not statistically significant, so has the number of people who think warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime. On the other, the four environmental issues that incite the highest levels of public concern all have to do with water, which may be driven by the severe drought currently afflicting the western and southeastern United States, or recent reports about drinking water contamination in major cities around the country.