Why Americans Don’t Buy Global Warming (Part I of II)

by | Jun 6, 2011

Americans aren’t very concerned about global warming, or at least not as concerned as the rest of the developed world.  A recent Gallup survey found that only a very slim majority of Americans see global warming as a threat, while over 43% claimed the seriousness of the issue has been generally exaggerated. What’s more, the research indicates Americans are becoming less worried about the consequences of climate change.

These results could spell trouble for the GreenTech industry.  The U.S. government has pledged $172 billion for green energy over the next five years. And according to a 2010 study by Verdantix, U.S. businesses will spend over $60 billion on sustainability initiatives by the year 2014 – a growth rate of nearly 20%. With all of the money flowing into the industry, GreenTech funds have been trading very well, climbing nearly 14% during the first quarter of 2011. With waning interest in global warming, however, there is significant risk that the American public will no longer support these investments. This would be a huge blow to one of the fastest growing industries in the nation.

The question is, why, despite the evidence that has been presented, do so many people in this country remain skeptical about global warming? As someone who works in the energy management field, I’ve given a lot of thought to this question. And while I don’t agree with those who deny climate change, I think I understand why they do. After speaking with hundreds of people about this topic, I’ve identified a few key reasons why so many Americans don’t buy in to global warming.

Reason one:  Climate Science is Complex

Let’s face it – the science behind climate change can be difficult to understand; and the United States isn’t known for the strength of its math and science education, at least not the typical K-12 curriculum. It’s been almost ten years since No Child Left Behind was signed into law, yet international evaluations show our students’ grasp of basic science is still subpar.

The average American, therefore, isn’t going to pore over scientific research just so they better understand the affect of increased CO2 on the environment. They’ll either trust that the science is valid or they won’t, which is why an issue like the Climategate controversy so damaging. These sorts of incidents shake the confidence of those who accept the validity of the science even though they don’t completely understand it.

Disputes within the scientific community only exacerbate this problem. Despite the general agreement that human activities are leading to global warming, news broadcasts still occasionally run stories about scientists challenging these conclusions.  Free speech is treasured in the US, especially the right to express a dissenting opinion. The small minority who disagree with the UN report are seen as underdogs, and American’s love underdogs. So the views of these scientists receive more credence than perhaps they should.

Reason two:  Personal Experience Trumps Global Events

Climate change is a global problem. Unfortunately, most people have difficulty comprehending anything on a global scale. We’re much better at understanding our own local community, the places where we live and work. They’re more tangible. Because of our geographic location, Americans also tend to feel insulated from events happening in other parts of the world. It’s easier for us to relate to local events than to something happening in another country.

Local conditions, therefore, tend to have significant influence on the average American’s perception of global warming. When we experience a hotter than normal summer, people are likely to pay more attention to climate change. Higher snowfall and lower temperatures in winter tend to have the opposite effect. A brief cold snap can even lead to wholesale discrediting of climate science, particularly among people who weren’t convinced to begin with. More than once I’ve heard someone say sarcastically, “Sure is cold. It must be global warming.”  Of course, statements like these are also further proof that our science education is lacking, as few Americans understand that the melting polar ice caps are actually causing our winters to be colder.

Reason three:  Americans Don’t like Being Told What to Do

Americans are generally an independent lot and don’t like being told what to do. We’re proud of our rugged individualism and dislike government interference in our daily lives. We’re really big on protecting our freedom to think, speak, and do as we like. This all harkens back to the founding of our country and the history lessons we learned in school. It’s the cowboy spirit that flows through our veins.

The problem is a lot of global warming messages come off as authoritarian. “You must reduce your carbon footprint. You must recycle. You must use less energy!” The commanding tone of environmental advocates is certainly understandable. Climate change is a critical issue and there is an urgent need to address the problem. We’re trying to save the planet and we want people to move – Now!  There’s simply no time for subtle discourse.

This intensity can backfire in the US, however. Americans aren’t going to change their behavior just because someone tells them to. Tell an American he has to stop using so much electricity, and he’s likely to start using more. Tell an American she has to conserve water, and she may start taking longer showers. It’s not that we’re contrary; we just don’t like being pushed around.

To recap then, Americans don’t buy into global warming because a) we’re not that in to science and we have a hard time figuring out who’s right, b) we’re more concerned about our own experiences than what’s happening in the rest of the world, and c) we’re not going to take orders from anyone.

Ok, maybe this isn’t a fair assessment of our country’s entire population. After all, at least half of us say we’re concerned about global warming. That still leaves a large group of people that don’t see the threat – that’s a real problem. How are we going to get them to understand the scope of the problem? How are we going to get them to do better? I’ll attempt to answer that question next time, in part II of this series.

Michael Nark builds successful organizations and leads companies to profitable growth. His executive leadership background spans several verticals, but he has never wavered from his goal of perfecting technology-enabled service delivery. As the current CEO and President of Prenova, the energy management services firm responsible for over $2 billion in annual energy spend across more than 30,000 locations, Michael’s extensive experience in leadership, sales, marketing, and operations means he has a unique, holistic perspective on issues pertaining to climate change.

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