As more Americans and politicians ignore, or dismiss, global warming, a debate heats up over why.

Are Americans getting blasé about global warming? In a weekend New York Times story Elisabeth Rosenthal writes that,

“belief in man-made global warming, and passion about doing something to arrest climate change, is not what it was five years or so ago, when Al Gore’s movie had buzz and Elizabeth Kolbert’s book about climate change, Field Notes From a Catastrophe, was a best seller. The number of Americans who believe the earth is warming dropped to 59 percent last year from 79 percent in 2006, according to polling by the Pew Research Group.”


That attitudinal shift also reflects a substantially changed political landscape. Four years ago, both the Republican and Democratic candidate for President agreed that climate change was real and required immediate action. Today, as Rosenthal notes, the GOP has made rejection of climate science a “requirement for electability,” while President Obama “talks about ‘green jobs’ mostly as a strategy for improving the economy, not the planet.”

Meanwhile, Rosenthal points out, the rest of the world remains quite concerned about the build-up of greenhouse gases, with a number of countries, such as Australia and India, instituting new carbon policies. So what gives with Americans? The headline of her Times article poses the question: “What happened to global warming?”

Responding in The Washington Post, Brad Plumer writes that, “it’s a complex, multi-layered story.” But the two biggest factors, he suggests, are the recession and the Senate’s institutional procedures, which prevented a simple majority vote in 2010 on cap-and-trade legislation.

Joe Romm, however, sees “collapsing media coverage” of climate change as a major reason for the erosion in public concern. A larger media failing was also the central argument that former Vice President Al Gore made in his Rolling Stone essay earlier this year. But a number of leading social scientists who study the media and climate change intersection don’t agree with this take. For example, in a recent interview, Stanford’s Jon Krosnick said,

“According to our national surveys, large majorities of Americans have believed that climate change is real and human-caused, will have undesirable consequences, and merits substantial government action to address it. These majorities rose a little in the years preceding 2007 and fell a bit in the years after, but the majorities remain large … I’d say the news media have paid plenty of attention to the climate science, but truth be told, that science is now an ‘old story,’ one the media have told many, many times before. It’s understandable, therefore, that every new climate study is not at the top of the front page of every newspaper in the country.”

Krosnicks’s observation that climate science has become an “old story” is worth noting: The doom element to many stories likely contributes to public fatigue with climate change. Let’s face it: even the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have long fallen off the front pages and the nightly news broadcasts (except when there are major events or policy shifts). Some in the media have tried to make global warming more topical by linking recent catastrophic disasters (such as floods and wildfires) to climate change. The challenge they face here may lie in doing so without editors’ and the public’s concluding that too is “old news.”

Those familiar with media coverage of environmental issues might also rephrase the Times article headline to ask, “What happened to biodiversity?” The science of conservation biology and concerns about declining species for years running had received frequent media coverage. And the crisis still exists, (though, as with climate change, there are concerns about it being misreported).

Similarly, Grist recently asked this question: “Remember when Americans used to care about population?” Well, that became an old story, too.

The news about climate change isn’t getting any better, and it still gets reported, in particular online, with some regularity. Are people just tuning out?

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.