Following the Polling on Global Warming

(originally published on August 8, 2012 on

Just like the rest of the planet, America is heating up. So far this year we are seeing nine new record high temperatures for every record low. Some of those new record high temperatures are literally frightening, smashing old all-time records by 30 degrees or more. Even as they continue to deny global warming on one hand, Fox News is forced by reality to report on the record heat. These events are all part of that elephant in the room – the long-term trends toward a consistently warmer planet.

All this heat affects precipitation patterns, increasing both droughts and precipitation depending on where you live. And it causes a lot of damage. Ranchers are being forced to liquidate their cattle herds, and even with supplemental feeding, America’s cattle inventory is now at its lowest levels since the U.S. Department of Agriculture started keeping records in 1973. Only about 25% of America’s corn crop is in good shape, which may shift food prices and practices globally. Thousands of valuable fish are dying in the Midwest as river and lake temperatures rise.

All this is heat and damage is ramping up interest and concern about global warming. (Yes, you can even use that term again now.) Media Matters reports disappointing, but growingpress coverage across America’s media. Some well-known, slow-learning, climate science deniers, like Richard A. Muller, are flipping. Jim Hansen’s new work connecting the devastating climate and weather trends is drawing lots of attention. Another infamous climate denier machine, the Wall Street Journal, even published an op-ed by EDF President Fred Krupp laying out the evidence on climate change and calling for consensus action.

Everyone wants to know where America stands on the issue, and they are turning to the polls. Here at ecoAmerica, we synthesize the major polls by Pew, Gallup, Yale, Rasmussen and others (including our own) each spring to follow the trends. After five years of declining public concern and support about climate change, Americans are reversing course. As the impacts mount, American’s awareness and understanding are increasing. Americans think the natural environment is deteriorating, and people are causing it.

Polling is embedded in most ecoAmerica surveys and social research. Like a scorecard or market share research, it is important to know where Americans stand on climate and where they are going. However, if we want to better connect with Americans on global warming, we need to go deeper. We need to understand the connections between climate change and their core values – like family, community, jobs, faith and health. Which groups of Americans are more concerned and motivated by what? We also need to connect with them in their language – not necessarily the language of environmentalists.

Effective psychographic research, like the American Climate and Environmental Values Survey makes these important connections. By comparing climate concerns to other values we learn about the moral dimensions of the issue, how it connects with consumerism, why fatalism and resignation on climate is growing among almost all Americans, and how conflicting loyalties and dissonance are neutralizing action on climate. And because theVALS system, the foundation of ecoAmerica’s psychographic research, is based in consumer segmentation, we can associate these values with cohesive groups of Americans that we can reach with our engagement marketing programs.

Similarly, effective communications research uses terms and considerations that come from target audiences rather than abstract concepts they might not know. For instance, words like “adaptation” or “resilience” have very different meanings to climate activists than they do to the general public. Americans understand “preparedness”, that they need to do something about climate. Adaptation leads to accommodation – letting the problem grow, and resilience is just an unfamiliar concept. Research like Climate and Energy Truths: Making the Necessary Connections combine focus groups, dial tests and phone surveys among thousands of Americans to dig deeper into these meanings.

Together these types of research enable climate and sustainability communications professionals to connect with Americans where they are, rather than force them to come to where we are. Next week we’ll be releasing Climate Impacts: Preparation or Adaptation? More Connecting the Dots. with further information on how American’s perceive our climate crisis and what we should do about it.

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