Thursday, November 02, 2006

Shifting perceptions of climate change?

A survey by MIT political scientists found that American attitudes about climate change have shifted substantially in the past three years. The respondents listed climate change as the top "environmental" concern, and 60% felt action was warranted.

Surveys of public opinion on climate change often have little real world value; you can care about the issue without endorsing any real action on that issue. What I like about the MIT approach is that they go a step further, asking how much people would be willing to pay to "solve global warming":

In 2003, people were willing to pay on average $14 more per month on their electricity bill to "solve" global warming. In 2006 they agreed to pay $21 more per month--a 50 percent increase in their willingness to pay. Could $21 make a real difference? Assuming 100 million U.S. households, total payments would be $25 billion per year. "That's real money," said Herzog. "While it cannot solve the whole problem, it can certainly make significant strides."

Now, if only we could drop the label "environmental". In my mind, the only way the level of concern and the willingness to pay will substantially increase is if we stop characterizing climate change as another "environmental" problem. The reason is not just marketing or politics. The label doesn't make sense (on this issue, or many others, I'll save the full argument for later).

Climate change is about people. It is about human decisions, how they may change the climate, and how those changes may affect not just the natural world, but how it will affect us and the resources on which we depend. It invokes concerns about things like energy production, food production, water availability, fundamental societal needs. It's time to stop presenting climate change as a problem that affects only some nebulous other we refer to as the environment.

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