Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney

Your Brain on Politics

Why America Changed Its Mind on Global Warming

The psychology behind a key public opinion shift.

Posted Oct 03, 2012

This week, I'm announcing a major new project. I'm joining Mother Jones magazine as a contributing writer and as the host of an event series on Capitol Hill called Climate Desk Live, which is dedicated to showcasing new ideas in the climate and energy space.

Our first event has a decidedly psychological angle. For as I explain in a new Mother Jones article-- and as you can see in this figure, based on this survey--there's been a public opinion shift about global warming over the last year, rendering it a potentially winning political issue for those who choose to champion it:

And how did this change occur? Simple: People's perceptions of global warming shifted markedly, because the issue came to affect them intimately and locally. In the process, climate change ceased to be cerebral, wonky, and scientific--and became up close and personal. 

If you remember the mid-2000s, the icon of global warming was the polar bear. From a public opinion standpoint, this was a disaster: It rendered the issue remote, in both time and space. The fear was about future devastation, in a place where most people have never been and will never go.

Shift forward to 2012: Global warming is now about not experiencing any winter, about stunning heat waves, wildfires, and drought. It is now something that is right in your face and in your backyard. It is about something that is just not right in your surroundings, and in the rhythm of your own life. 

As I explain in my article, extreme weather is the key factor shifting public perceptions of global warming. And this has big implications for anyone wanting to communicate on the issue:

There are good ways and bad ways for politicians to communicate about climate, explains Paul Bledsoe, a Washington-based consultant who was the chief staffer on climate change communications in the Clinton White House. "When it is isolated from the things they care about, people tend to react more negatively, especially if they feel they're being lectured about it, because they often feel there's little they can do about it," says Bledsoe. Rather, he explains, a climate message will resonate with voters if it is made "relevant to their livelihoods, experiences in their states and localities."

Another way of saying this is that the longtime scientific approach to communicating about global warming--talking about human causation, how we know it's true, and future projections of what may come--was just psychologically wrong if the goal was to move people or impel political action. Rather, scientists (and politicians) needed to talk about just what President Obama mentioned in his September 6 Democratic National Convention acceptance speech: "More droughts and floods and wildfires." It helps, of course, that linking a changing climate to recent extreme weather is increasingly well supported scientifically (though of course there are various caveats that remain).

This is also the upshot of a report from a few years ago on the psychology of climate change communication by researchers at Columbia University. Here's a quote: effective communicator should highlight the current impacts of climate change on regions within the US. Research suggests that it may be more effective to frame climate change with local examples in addition to national examples. For example, references to droughts in the Southwest may resonate more with US audiences than talking about droughts in Africa. Similarly, climate change becomes a more personal threat to a New Yorker when hearing how New York City’s subway system will suffer as the result of a rise in sea level compared to hearing about the effect of a sea level rise in Bangladesh.

It is not, of course, that scientists and climate communicators radically changed their strategy over the last year. Rather, it would be more accurate to say that nature served up the message for them. But the upshot is the same: Now, Americans are very, very attuned to global warming, including independents and swing voters, as this figure (based on this survey) shows:

So are politicians catching on to this? It looks like there are votes there for them to be won, and crossover appeal to be had, if they talk about climate. So will they? Or if not, what is stopping them?

That's what we'll discuss in D.C. on Oct 10 with public opinion experts and strategists. More details here. The upshot: Global warming could be the sleeper issue of the 2012 election.