It's been a week of disheartening statistics on climate change. While 28 percent of the U.S. Senate took to the floor Monday night to highlight the danger of ignoring the facts on climate change (that's 28 senators, for those who skipped government class during high school), just 24 percent of Americans said in a Gallup poll that they "personally worry... a great deal" about climate change.
A recent story from BostInno sums up the overall media reaction to both these stories pretty succinctly: "Elizabeth Warren Talks Climate Change but Americans Don't Care," announces their headline. Other headlines tell a similar story: "Global Warming Not a Concern for Most Americans," for instance.
I think the poll tells a very different story. Notice what Americans say is their absolute top concern, or the thing they "personally worry about" the most: the economy (59 percent). You can make a pretty strong argument that "the economy" covers most of the other categories in Gallup polls: federal spending, unemployment, Social Security, homelessness. Aren't these all basically concerns about "the economy," broken up into specific areas of interest?
I'd argue the same is true for climate change -- that it shouldn't be broken out into its own category, but instead integrated into questions about the economy, health care, real estate, energy, even crime. After all, there's compelling evidence that the long-term risk of climate change has a distinct impact on each of these areas.
Take "federal spending and the budget deficit," an area that 58 percent of Americans find very worrying. Climate change, if unchecked and unacknowledged, may result in the single largest threat to our federal budget, as costs mount for disaster relief, rebuilding infrastructure, and relocating entire communities away from coastal areas and extreme heat and drought conditions. That's a massive unfunded mandate that could sink the budget if we don't plan ahead. The 48 percent of Americans who stay up at night worrying about "the size and power of the federal government" might find this new influx of government involvement in climate impact response a concern as well.
I could draw similar relationships between any number of the Gallup categories: the availability and affordability of energy" (37 percent), an issue that will be directly affected by climate change as we see our energy security threatened by sea level rise and water availability; or "the quality of the environment" (31 percent) which goes hand in hand with both climate impacts and with our efforts to find more and cheaper fossil fuels. But here's one you may not find so obvious: the relationship between climate change and "crime and violence" (37 percent). New research shows that rising temperatures are likely to lead to increased crime rates over the next century, with violent crimes heading up the list.
My point here is that I'm not particularly surprised that, when asked about the generic area of "climate change", Americans aren't expressing strong worries. It's not something we've been educated -- by our schools or the media or our representatives -- to naturally integrate across a variety of other parts of our economy and our daily lives. When you take a step back and do that integration, you realize that what the Gallup poll really shows is that Americans are deeply worried about climate change impacts, which will exacerbate our concerns in nearly every other area.
Our Risky Business project is designed to pull out these relationships and ask the question of exactly what climate risks mean to this country in economic terms. We'll have those results out in late June. In the meantime, perhaps the folks at Gallup should look to the UK for guidance in how to ask their next round of questions on climate. There, pollsters asked not whether people "worry" about climate change, but whether they think the benefits of acting to curb climate impacts outweigh the risks. And there, nearly 60 percent of respondents want to take action.