How companies and weather may sway public opinion on climate

Proof Points

How companies and weather may sway public opinion on climate

Hurricane Katrina image by Tad Denson via Shutterstock.

One challenge U.S. companies face in dealing with global issues is the significant difference that sometimes exists between public opinion in America and in the rest of the world.

Nowhere has the difference in perspective and opinion been more evident than in concern over climate change.

For much of the decade between 1995 to 2005, Americans were significantly less concerned about climate change than Europeans and indeed much of the rest of the world. Hurricane Katrina, however, catapulted American concern to near-European levels, with the percentage of Americans expressing "serious concern" jumping 20 points (see chart below).

Since Katrina, U.S. climate concerns have languished along with the rest of the industrialized world. In fact, much to the surprise of many observers (including our clients), climate concerns in China and other emerging economies have overtaken those in G7 countries, often due to violent weather in those countries publicly attributed to climate change. In our 2009 global Radar survey, 57 percent of Chinese citizens were very concerned about climate, compared to 45 percent of Americans.

But what about Superstorm Sandy last October? Has it had a similar effect on American opinion? To find out, GlobeScan surveyed a representative sample of 1,000 Americans by telephone in March. We're pleased to release our results for the first time here at GreenBiz.

As the following chart shows, the answer is both yes and no. Yes, Superstorm Sandy seems to have again increased the perceived seriousness of climate change in American minds, bringing U.S. opinion closer to the global average. But it doesn't appear to have had as much effect as Hurricane Katrina did, and the convergence of U.S. and global opinion has more to do with global concern dropping significantly since the failed Copenhagen Climate Summit in December 2009.

Public opinion on climate change

The takeaway from all this is that continuing erratic and even deadly weather events in the U.S. and elsewhere will continue to have a significant, but likely diminishing, effect on public opinion. In other words, erratic weather on its own -- unless such events continue to escalate exponentially -- is unlikely to rally public opinion to levels needed for strong legislative, organizational and personal action to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is consistent with long-established psychological testing results where similar stimuli tend to foster diminishing response in human subjects. Or as GlobeScan's first chairman, Lord Holme, observed, "We humans seem to do rather better at adapting than planning."

Where does this leave progressive forces working to show humans can actually do "rather better at planning" in the face of clear scientific evidence of human impacts on climate? As was said during Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, "The economy, stupid."

It should be increasingly easy to make an economic argument along the lines of "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," especially following the historically high costs of Katrina and Sandy. More immediately, there is an opportunity to sell a U.S. carbon tax as a way of funding needed government programs while keeping income tax rates down. Even some Republicans see the benefits of taxing things we don't want (carbon emissions, other pollution) rather than things we want (jobs, personal income).

When GlobeScan released our latest global evidence of declining environmental concerns a month ago, I was quoted in the International Herald-Tribune: "Scientists report that evidence of environmental damage is stronger than ever -- but our data shows that economic crisis and a lack of political leadership mean that the public are starting to tune out." I went on to say, "Those who care about mobilizing public opinion on the environment need to find new messages in order to reinvigorate a stalled debate."

In my view, it is time for progressive forces to go on the offensive on climate, to wake up the policy community with sound economic arguments. Otherwise, the costs will be horrendous, and mainly applied to adapting to an increasingly hostile climate rather than mitigating the problem for all.

This presents an interesting opportunity for American leadership companies such as Disney, Dow and Microsoft, which have quietly slashed their carbon emissions by applying internal price-of-carbon mechanisms.

By publicly sharing the business benefits of this approach and joining forces to advocate for a national carbon tax, these companies could bring important credibility and impetus to a proposed tax, while attracting reputational and early-mover advantage here and abroad.

Hurricane Katrina image by Tad Denson via Shutterstock.