Public Awareness of Climate Change

May 7, 2012, 6:49 pm
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Table: Percentage of respondents in various countries who have heard about climate change, and degree of concern by those who have heard. Source Pew Research Center 2006a. Numbers are rounded.

Most people, when surveyed about current issues, express at least a fair amount of concern about global climate change. They also believe that human activities are largely responsible for changing the climate and the problems that result from such changes. Nonetheless, they rank global climate change as less important than the economy, jobs, terrorism, education, health care, poverty, crime, and other issues.

Surveys and media coverage indicate that public concern about global climate change has been waning since about 2006. A string of new cataclysmic climatic events of the magnitude of the European heat wave in 2003 or Hurricane Katrina in 2005 would place global climate change higher on everyone’s priority list, [1] but we hope that such stimuli will not prove necessary. The recent decline in concern, however, highlights the difficulties in keeping the public eye focused on the problem of global climate change. Several factors, including the nature of the human psyche and the complexity of the topic, contribute to this lack of focus.

Table: Percentage of U.S. respondents, listed by political party affiliation, who rated an issue as very important in three recent surveys.Source Pew Research Center 2006b, 2007, 2008, 2009b.
aIssues are listed in descending importance according to the January 2009 survey.


The human psyche is not well suited for addressing the problem of global climate change. [2], [3] Our mental skill set is highly attuned to solve urgent, well-defined problems with clear solutions, such as procuring our next meal or finding a safe place to sleep. Global climate change is the exact opposite, a problem that extends over several generations, seems vague and abstract, and has no sure fire remedies. Indeed, potential remedies to this problem only diminish the odds of undesirable outcomes and may seem too meager a reward for all the hard work and sacrifice that they entail.

Many people do not perceive global climate change to be an imminent danger that warrants direct attention. [4] Global warming of a few degrees may seem relatively benign to people who prefer warmer winters and earlier springs or who escape to higher latitudes or higher elevations in the summer. Similarly, a sea level rise of a few feet or more violent hurricanes may not pose a threat to those who occupy higher ground. Moreover, a significant segment of the population still does not accept that human activities are the major cause of climate change and do not perceive any direct benefits of mitigating climate change, although they directly experience the costs of such actions at the gasoline pump or in utility bills.

In comparison, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer has received continuous, strong public support. A key difference between ozone depletion and global climate change is that ozone depletion increases the incidence of skin cancer, and virtually everyone recognizes the importance of averting skin cancer. In addition, mitigation of ozone depletion includes relatively simple measures such as using alternative refrigerants in compressors or converting from aerosol spray cans to squeeze bottles.

[1] Krosnick, J. A., A. L. Holbrook, L. Lowe, and P. S. Visser (2006) The origins and consequences of democratic citizens' policy agendas: A study of popular concern about global warming. Climatic Change 77:7-43.

[2] Leiserowitz, A. (2006) Climate change risk perception and policy preferences: The role of affect, imagery, and values. Climatic Change 77:45-72 doi:10.1007/s10584-006-9059-9.

[3] Weber, E. U. (2006) Experience-based and description-based perceptions of long-term risk: Why global warming does not scare us (yet). Climatic Change 77:103-120 doi:10.1007/s10584-006-9060-3.

[4] Lorenzoni, I., N. F. Pidgeon, and R. E. O'Connor (2005) Dangerous climate change: The role for risk research. Risk Analysis 25:1387-1398 doi:DOI 10.1111/j.1539-6925.2005.00686.x.

This is an excerpt from the book Global Climate Change: Convergence of Disciplines by Dr. Arnold J. Bloom and taken from UCVerse of the University of California.

©2010 Sinauer Associates and UC Regents



Bloom, A. (2012). Public Awareness of Climate Change. Retrieved from


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