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Most Americans Want Scientists, Not Politicians, to Lead Climate Debate

The latest results from an ongoing Yale/George Mason study indicate that Americans want experts to explain how human activities are altering the climate

By Elizabeth McGowan, SolveClimate News

Jul 5, 2011
The melting Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park

Oddly enough, much of the broad information many Americans absorb about climate change is disseminated by the two sources they trust the least — the mainstream news media and their own congressional representatives. Mainstream media and federal legislators finish at the bottom of the barrel — ninth and tenth — just below television weather reporters, among the list of 10 choices the Yale/George Mason survey presented to respondents.

At the other end of scale, respondents offer more stellar marks to government agencies as trustworthy sources of climate change data. For instance, three-quarters of them have high regard for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as scientists overall.

Not surprisingly, those figures drop to 25 percent and 30 percent, respectively, among the "dismissive" audience.

A majority of those surveyed also had kudos for climate change information dispensed by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Park Service and the Department of Energy.

Perhaps expectedly, trust in what President Obama espouses about global warming was highly polarized. Survey results reveal that 77 percent of the "alarmed" say they trust him, compared to 21 percent among the "doubtful" and 3 percent of the "dismissive."

"As the glue of society, we know trust is crucial," Leiserowitz notes, adding that on a daily basis Americans are confronted with daunting perils they know nothing about such as climate change, lead in children's toys and salmonella in fresh produce. "We don’t have the time or energy to do an examination to reach our own informed decisions among an ever-more complex landscape of hazards.

"So we look for guides to help us through this dangerous landscape. We take our cues from key trusted individuals and organizations. And different groups tend to trust different messengers."

Indeed, the 10 percent of the respondents that Leiserowitz's team classifies as "dismissive," tend to be unreachable because a fair share of them are conspiracy theorists who distrust any source of climate change data.

But Leiserowitz seems confident that the urgency of the risks of global warming can resonate with the other five categories of Americans — the "alarmed," "concerned," "cautious," "disengaged" and "doubtful" — if the right people can craft appropriate and credible messages.

As former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill once famously pontificated, "All politics is local." Leiserowitz is convinced those four words can be a communications beacon on the climate change front.

Think Globally, Act Locally

"This is where the rubber hits the road," Leiserowitz says about how critical it is for agencies at the federal, state and municipal level to engage local constituencies. "You can't talk about preparing for climate change in Seattle the same way you would in Phoenix."

As well, the threats of global warming are less likely to sink in with people when the points of reference are distant or unfamiliar geographies instead of their own backyards.

Thus, it's not too shocking that on average, half or more of the respondents in four of the survey groups — the "alarmed," "concerned," "cautious" and "disengaged" — expressed support for safeguarding the public's health in their own communities, as well as the water supplies, agriculture, forests, wildlife, coastlines, sewer systems and public property.

"The vast majority of American are basically local critters," he says. "And who doesn't want to protect their own water and other resources?"

Well, some naysayers do exist. Survey results reveal that very few of those in "doubtful" and "dismissive" categories favored local action to secure those assets because they don't perceive global warming as a danger.

Though it's a slow and laborious process, Leiserowitz is optimistic that most of the American public is reachable and educable about the realities of climate change.

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