Jon Gertner touched on this in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. He noted that debate as to why climate change isn’t higher up on the priority totem‐pole usually is blamed on “the doubt‐sowing remarks of climate‐change skeptics,” or “the poor communication skills of good scientists.”
This prism has bent the light on global warming exactly wrong. In fact, it is the communication skills of scientists that are responsible for people’s opinions. Kellstedt found that people “with high confidence in scientists … show less concern for global warming,” as did the “more informed respondents.” Americans’ lack of alarm has less to do with “skeptics” than it does with people’s perception of mainstream science.
Interestingly, this is parallel to other issues at the science‐political nexus. Despite years of campaigning against genetically modified (GM) food on the part of many environmentalists, the more people learn, the less concerned they are about that, too.
Maybe this has to do with the fact that Americans have been consuming, in one form or another, GM food for decades, and we obviously aren’t dead yet. Sober scientists note that GM foods are nutritionally indistinguishable from their progenitors — so when someone else loudly and angrily foretells disaster upon disaster that will befall us from the use of GM products, people say “so what?” And when they see some movie about the horrors of global warming — if they know that scientists observe that the planet’s surface has been warming episodically and modestly for a century — they likewise say, “So what? It’s a movie.”
Washington would be well‐advised to pay attention to what folks are telling pollsters out beyond the Beltway.
But it’s Earth Day, so I expect the response of the political class here will likewise be, “So what?”