Apocalypse Fatigue: Losing the Public on Climate Change

In Yale e360.org, Ted and Michael make the case that the recent decline in the public's belief in global warming is partly due to apocalypse fatigue. Mobilizing the public around an abstract, distant and long-term issue like climate change is hard enough. What makes it even harder is when advocates of action engage in an apocalyptic and hyper-partisan discourse demanding changes to the American way of life. "Rather than galvanizing public demand for difficult and far-reaching action," they write, "apocalyptic visions of global warming disaster have led many Americans to question the science."

Update (12/7/2009): Citing Nordhaus and Shellenberger, The Christian Science Monitor has weighed in on "apocalypse fatigue" with a thoughtful piece discussing public attitudes towards climate change and the challenge of engaging the public in such an abstract but urgent problem.

Experts reason that, after years of warnings of future disaster and protracted negotiations to achieve a climate treaty, a sense of fatigue has set in. The worldwide recession also has people focused on keeping their jobs, if they even have one, and on keeping a roof over their heads. That may be one reason President Obama rarely talks about climate change itself but frequently mentions the "green" jobs that fighting it will create.

Some even argue that Gore - his Nobel Prize notwithstanding - is a poor standard-bearer for the cause because he is seen as a partisan politician...

In fact, the louder and more alarmed climate advocates become in these efforts, the more they polarize the issue, driving away a conservative or moderate for every liberal they recruit to the cause," argue Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger in the article "Apocalypse Fatigue: Losing the Public on Climate Change," written for Yale Environment 360 magazine, a publication of Yale University's School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

Just up today at Yale e360, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus' latest op-ed tackles the issue of "apocalypse fatigue".

Make no mistake, despite the ever growing consensus that global warming is a human induced problem, roughly fifteen percent fewer Americans believe that this is the case when compared with polls from as recent as April 2008 (from 71% in Apr 08, to 56% in Oct 09). Many pollsters blame the polls themselves for being flawed, many blame the recession. To get the whole picture, Shellenberger and Nordhaus argue, one must examine the way the global apocalyptic narrative is being "sold" to us.

The truth is both simpler and more complicated. It is simpler in the sense that most Americans just aren't paying a whole lot of attention. Between being asked about things like whether they would provide CPR to save the life of a pet (most pet owners say yes ) or whether they would allow their child to be given the swine flu vaccine (a third of parents say no), pollsters occasionally get around to asking Americans what they think about global warming. When they do, Americans find a variety of ways to tell us that they don't think about it very much at all.

Three years after it seemed that "An Inconvenient Truth" had changed everything, it turns out that it didn't. The current Pew survey is the latest in a series of studies suggesting that Al Gore probably had a good deal more effect upon elite opinion than public opinion.

Public opinion about global warming, it turns out, has been remarkably stable for the better part of two decades, despite the recent decline in expressed public confidence in climate science.


What is arguably most remarkable about U.S. public opinion on global warming has been both its stability and its inelasticity in response to new developments, greater scientific understanding of the problem, and greater attention from both the media and politicians. Public opinion about global warming has remained largely unchanged through periods of intensive media attention and periods of neglect, good economic times and bad, the relatively activist Clinton years and the skeptical Bush years. And majorities of Americans have, at least in principle, consistently supported government action to do something about global warming even if they were not entirely sold that the science was settled, suggesting that public understanding and acceptance of climate science may not be a precondition for supporting action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The more complicated questions have to do with why. Why have Americans been so consistently supportive of action to address climate change yet so weakly committed? Why has two decades of education and advocacy about climate change had so little discernible impact on public opinion? And why, at the height of media coverage and publicity about global warming in the years after the release of Gore's movie, did confidence in climate science actually appear to decline?

Read the full story here at Yale Environment 360.

Media Coverage of Apocalypse Fatigue:

The Christian Science Monitor: "Global Warming, Why Public Concern Declines"