Reilly Center Blog Post - The Mysterious Sixteen Percent

Author: John Copeland Nagle

People are not listening to their scientists. The Pew Research Center for People and the Press offered the latest evidence of that in its annual survey of the public’s priorities for Congress and the President. The economy, jobs, and terrorism topped the list with over 80% of Americans describing those issues as a top priority. The list continues downward to include social security, education, Medicare, deficit reduction, health care, helping the poor, the military, energy, health insurance, crime, moral decline, finance regulation, tax cuts, immigration, lobbyists, and trade policy. Climate change is at the bottom of the list, with only 28% of Americans citing it as a top priority. (See the report at http://people-press.org/report/584/policy-priorities-2010 ). 

One other statistic in the Pew report is even more intriguing. Forty-four percent of Americans regard “the environment” as a top priority, just ahead of tax cuts and just behind finance regulation. In other words, 16% of Americans are more concerned about the environment generally than about climate change. Why?

The mysterious sixteen percent of Americans have not been paying attention to the scientists who have publicized the studies regarding climate change, or to the environmentalists who have embraced that information and championed the sweeping solutions that were rebuffed in Copenhagen and appear to be on dying in the United States Senate. Such failures have provoked both soul searching and name calling by those who are most concerned about climate change. Unfortunately, both responses are unlikely to explain the mysterious sixteen percent.

Soul searching is probably a wise strategy for any movement, particularly when it confronts difficult times. Climate change activists have focused on a failure of education. Too many people, they say, fail to appreciate the urgency of the climate change crisis. Their solution is to make the message more accessible, to employ marketing experts and psychologists to devise a campaign that allows people to overcome the difficulties in responding to a threat whose real danger will not manifest itself for many years to come.

The name calling approach is prominent, too. Sarah Palin’s recent critical remarks about the Copenhagen meeting and about the proposed congressional cap-and-trade bill elicited thousands of hostile blog postings, letters, and other attacks on her appearance, intellectual capacity, honesty, child raising skills, and financial motivations.

But neither education nor name calling explains the fact that many more people are concerned about the environment than about climate change. The mysterious sixteen percent does not consist of climate change skeptics or Tea Party activists, because the sixteen percent are people who are more concerned about the environment than tax cuts. Perhaps it is a function of the trustworthiness of the messengers involved. Not everyone believes Al Gore. Last year I asked my class who could appeal to the southerners, evangelicals, or conservatives who question the need for government action respecting climate change. The suggestions included Kurt Warner (the Super Bowl quarterback and an outspoken Christian), Rush Limbaugh (the conservative talk show host), and my favorite candidate, Miley Cyrus (a/k/a Hannah Montana) -- though none of those celebrities have adopted the climate change cause. Or perhaps religious divides explain the mysterious sixteen percent, though I doubt it. Despite the distrust between many scientists and many religious believers, there are religious conservatives who have become active in addressing environmental issues generally and climate change in particular. 

The focus on religious thought, though, may begin to both explain the mysterious sixteen percent and to understand a way forward. The premise of too many climate change activists is that those who fail to share their sense of urgency are either in need of education (or, to be more blunt, too dumb to appreciate the problem) or irrational (that is, preferring religious teaching to scientific evidence). Environmental history teaches otherwise. Consider Bill McKibben, a popular environmental writer who is active in the fight against climate change. Two years ago, McKibben edited the 1,047-page book “American Earth,” which is “an anthology of American environmental writing since Thoreau” (to quote the book’s subtitle). The book’s excerpts capture the splendor of American environmental writing and confirm the power of eloquent language invoking values. “American Earth” also testifies to the modest effectiveness of scientific writing, which is surprisingly absent from such a large compendium of leading environmental writing. Or consider Yale’s 2006 report on “Americans and Climate Change” http://environment.yale.edu/climate/americans_and_climate_change.pdf , which concluded that many people a values-based approach to climate change, and even asserted that “[a] call to action should include an emphasis on prayer.” 

An inquiry into environmental values as they are shaped by religious, and specifically Christian, thought leads to those organizations that are on the ground around the world confronting the full range of environmental problems. There are many such organizations that approach their work from a variety of secular and religious perspectives. For many of them, clean water is the most pressing environmental challenge. Environmental sustainability is also one of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which specifically target the development of sustainable development policies, the reduction of biodiversity loss, the provision of sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation, and an overall “significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers.” At the same time, relief organizations recognize the threat presented by climate change. For example, World Vision – which describes itself as “a Christian humanitarian charity organization dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice” -- reports that “climate change threatens the world’s poorest regions with more frequent and damaging storms, erratic rainfall, deadlier cycles of drought and flooding, and other climate-related disasters.” And so “World Vision is committed to holistic and sustainable solutions that empower these vulnerable communities to be agents of change, not victims.” Similarly, Catholic Relief Services “is witnessing first-hand the effects of environmental degradation and climate change on poor and vulnerable people in the countries we work.”

Such Christian relief organizations, in short, place climate change in the context of environmental problems generally. Many climate change activists reverse that approach: they place all environmental problems in the context of climate change. That is understandable, for climate change is a global phenomenon that can affect all aspects of the environment. But right now more people are being affected by unclean water, polluted air, and land degradation then climate change, so maybe the sixteen percent aren’t so mysterious after all.

- John Copeland Nagle