Climate Change, The Media, and Public Awareness
Roger E. Kasperson
The wide-ranging discussion accompanying the emerging international response to global climate change and the upcoming 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Brazil rest upon a series of assumptions of global public response to the issues associated with climate change. The assumptions are largely untested, and studies are only beginning to explore how public information, understanding, attitudes, and mobilization may affect the future course of these public processes and attempts at international initiatives.
In the United States, public awareness and concern about global environmental problems have appeared only recently. This is not surprising in light of the relatively recent scientific attention to these problems and the changes in media coverage referred to above. In a Cambridge Reports national poll in 1982, less than half of those interviewed had heard or read anything about the ''greenhouse effect," and only one of every eight expressed a great deal of concern over it (Cambridge Reports, 1986). In 1986, a similar poll revealed rising awareness, but still only two of five persons interviewed had heard or read about it. Nonetheless, once it was explained, twice as many respondents in 1986 as in 1982 (24 percent as compared with 12 percent) felt that it was a very serious problem. In the public's volunteered list of environmental concerns solicited in 1983, 1984, and 1985, climate change, desertification, deforestation, and ozone depletion did not appear on the agenda of concerns. Air pollution topped the concerns, followed by water pollution and radioactive and toxic wastes.
In the second half of the 1980s, public awareness and concern over these problems, especially global warming, increased significantly. A national Roper poll conducted in December 1987 and
January 1988 showed relatively high rates of public concern: 47 percent of respondents judged ozone layer destruction to be very serious, 36 percent saw acid rain as very serious, and 33 percent viewed the greenhouse effect as very serious. Despite this, the greenhouse effect still ranked twenty-fourth out of twenty-eight environmental hazards viewed as very serious. Also noteworthy is the fact that public responses showed unusually high rates of "don't knows," even for acid rain, which has been extensively publicized. Although the data suggest increased public concern, potential climate change scored well down on the public's list of top environmental concerns, which continued to be dominated by issues associated with hazardous wastes, toxic materials, nuclear accidents, pesticides, and air and water pollution.
In 1987 and 1989, Cambridge Reports conducted national polls in the United States assessing the degree of threat to (1) personal health and safety and (2) the overall quality of the environment. The results showed dramatic increases in the perceived degree of threat associated with global environmental problems. Indeed, the largest increase in perceived "large threat" was for the greenhouse effect. These changes in opinion, however, must be placed in the context of the poll's finding that between 1987 and 1989, "Americans were not only growing vastly more concerned about environmental problems of all kinds, they were also increasingly likely to feel those problems posed a direct risk to their personal health and safety" (Cambridge Reports, 1990). It is also instructive that public perceptions of threats from climate change in the United States continued to follow well behind hazardous waste disposal, pollution, and pesticides.
Neither the public nor policymakers like large uncertainties. In our daily lives, we seek to remove them if the stakes involved matter greatly to us; or, finding this impossible, we either decide to forego the activity or make our uneasy peace. Which will it be for human-induced climate change? One possibility is that public responses to these problems will over time come to resemble those to nuclear war and nuclear power. Both conjure up futures of vast destruction and uncontrollability in the public mind (Slovic, Lichtenstein, and Fischhoff, 1979). Some, like Robert Lifton (1976), see the sources of public concern in a state of denial—what Lifton calls "psychic numbing"—in which, however uncertain, the catastrophic threatening of the earth itself is at stake. Others, such as Paul Slovic (1987) attribute it not only to the vast destructiveness and dread that it brings to mind but to a series of other qualitative properties—newness, involuntary nature, uncon-
trollability, unknowns of science—of the associated hazards. Some believe that the active scientific dispute over the uncertainties will only serve to convince publics around the globe that something is fundamentally amiss on a problem on which scientists have worked extensively but upon which they cannot agree. Will, as Gerard Blanc suggests, global change mobilize unconscious fears, producing l'angoise planetarie, and will it result in widespread and sustained public concern over this class of problems?
The ambiguities surrounding climate change will be no less pronounced than the uncertainties. Who exactly is responsible for the worldwide problems? What will the future be like at a time when we think that our descendants may experience harm? How should we reconcile our investments to protect both the worse off in this generation and the many unknown people in future generations? Will there really be winners as well as losers, and how will they be distributed? These and a host of other social and political considerations will add to the perplexity of the question, Who must respond, how, and when (O'Riordan and Rayner, 1990; Kasperson and Dow, 1991)?
The distinct possibility exists that the primary characteristic of media coverage and public responses to global environmental change will be oscillation. In a slowly changing global environment, the shifting averages may be imperceptible, and the periodic occurrence of extreme events may well drive the public agenda. In crisis years, the media will champion the global change cause. In more routine years, they will move on to more "newsworthy" topics (Schneider, 1988). Environmental groups also target particular problems for concerted effort, and these shift from year to year. And, of course, some policy outcomes (e.g., expansion of nuclear power) cut across traditional environmental interests (Ingram, Cortner, and Landy, 1990). Politicians, with characteristically short-term agenda horizons (the next election), may find it more convenient to wait out extreme events than to allocate costly expenditures designed to protect distant future generations or to subsidize preventive actions in far-off places. Then, too, it is a noteworthy characteristic of the most difficult types of environmental and technological controversies—those that can be described as "mysteries"—that the public debate oscillates between disputes over facts and disputes over values, with often growing confusion as to which are at stake or who is qualified to speak about them (Edwards and von Winterfeldt, 1986).
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