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On the Public and Climate Change, It's Not the Heat or the Cold, It's the Curve

by Scott Bittle

Friday, July 9th, 2010

This week's triple-digit heat wave has raised both temperatures and hopes among climate activists that this can move public opinion about global warming just as climate skeptics grasped onto last winter's "snowpocalypse" as a talking point. From our point of view, what policymakers and activists really need is a better reading on the public, not a better reading on the thermometer.

When it comes to complicated problems, like energy and climate, public thinking goes through a "learning curve." The learning curve runs through several stages, from initially learning about an issue to "working through" the different alternatives and finally to a resolution, according to Public Agenda's founder, Dan Yankelovich. This can be a long process, and there are a lot of potential hurdles that can block progress. Scientists and policymakers, in particular, often believe that more information is the answer, but information is only one element in public thinking.

The hardest part of this process is the middle stage of "working through," where the public weighs a particular problem against other priorities, and various options to solving it against each other. This takes time, and there are a lot of potential roadblocks, like wishful thinking, mistrust, a lack of urgency, and a lack of clear alternatives.

On energy, the public is certainly wrestling with a lack of knowledge, but the question of whether climate change is real or not is only a piece of that puzzle. Four in 10 Americans can't name a fossil fuel, and even more can't name a renewable energy source. People overestimate the amount of oil we have domestically and the amount of energy we get from renewables.

So even if Americans believe we need to overhaul our energy policy and surveys show they do they're hampered in dealing with the options to making that change happen. The decisions needed to change our energy mix require serious tradeoffs based on economics, technology and politics. Without key facts and clear choices, the public can't judge what's realistic and what's not, and that's bound to hamper constructive, practical decision making.

There are good reasons to be skeptical of whether heat waves actually change the public's sense of urgency on global warming. But even if a hot spell made the problem more urgent for the public, without better ways of working through the choices, people could still be lukewarm when it comes to buying into practical solutions.


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