Hidden away in one of Andrew’s recent posts was a link to an interesting DotEarth piece about how, after a few years of intense media attention, climate change has “reverted to its near perpetual position on the far back shelf of the public consciousness — if not back in the freezer.”
For old hands in US debates about the environment, this pattern should not come as a total surprise. I’ve just had my attention drawn (hat tip to Tim Bale at Sussex Uni) to what is apparently the classic work on the “issue-attention cycle”, by the doyen of US political scientists Anthony Downs (see lovely pic left).
Entitled “Up and down with ecology”, Downs’ 1972 article lays out a public interest cycle that many major issues go through in modern political life. As Downs puts it:
“American public attention rarely remains sharply focused upon any one domestic issue for very long-even if it involves a continuing problem of crucial importance to society. Instead, a systematic “issue-attention cycle” seems strongly to influence public attitudes and behaviour concerning most key domestic problems. Each of these problems suddenly leaps into prominence, remains there for a short time, and then – though still largely unresolved – gradually fades form the center of public attention”
It’s worth reflecting how climate change might fit (or not fit) into this achema. Downs’ cycle is about a heightening of public interest and then “increasing boredom”, and goes through 5 stages:
1. The pre-problem stage (when most people aren’t yet aware of the issue but experts or interest groups might be).
2. “Alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm” – when the public suddenly becomes aware of and alarmed about an issue. According to Down’s analysis, in the US this alarm “is invariably accompanied by euphoric enthusiasm about society’s ability to “solve this problem” or “do something effective” within a relatively short period of time”.
3. Realising the cost of significant progress – disillusionment sets in once people realise how much it will cost to solve the problem, not only in terms of money but also through sacrifices by large groups of the population.
4. Gradual decline of intense public interest – “As more and more people realize how difficult, and how costly to themselves, a solution to the problem would be, three reactions set in. Some peope just get discouraged. Others feel positively threatened by thinking about the problem, so they suppress such thoughts. Still others become bored by the issue.” Other issues start to get more attention instead.
5. The post-problem stage – the problem gets moved off into a “twilight realm of lesser attention or spasmodic recurrences of interest”. But things are not the same as before – new institutions, polices and programmes are in place, and any issue that has been through the cycle is more likely to get attention again in future at certain points.
Climate change feels very much like an issue that has been through such a cycle over the last 10 years, and is somewhere around stage 4 or 5. The IPCC’s 3rd assessment report began to gain serious attention in the media from the early 2000s. Many corporate leaders began to take the issue more seriously, which the media picked up on. Things really hotted up in 2006 with Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth film and then the Stern Review, and peaked in 2009 with Copenhagen. But as the extent of the task of reducing emissions, and the complexity of the solution, became clearer through the decade, many became confused and discouraged, and then disengaged. The cycle of media attention can be seen in this graphic from the universities of Colorado and Oxford – indeed it seems that media interest had already started to decline before Copenhagen gave the issue one last boost.
The sense that climate change has gone through such a cycle is strengthened by other aspects of Downs’ analysis. He thought that the kinds of issues that go through the issue-attention cycle have three characteristics.
First, they are not a majority concern (which is certanly true of climate change, in the sense of people in rich, high emitting countries being affected by climate impacts now). Second, the problem is generated by “social arrangements that provide signioficant benefits to a majority”. The example Downs gives is of traffic and congestion, but this is surely abundantly ture of climate change – everyone uses fossil fuels and benefits from the energy gained from that use. Third, “the problem has no instrinsically exciting qualities”. Greenhouse gas emissions are of course invisible, and extreme weather events can’t be pinned to climate change. Copenhagen was exciting, but once it was over, few journalists wanted to keep on the issue. Downs’ account of why these three factors drive the issue-attention cycle might almost have been written with climate change in mind:
The first condition means that most people will not be continually reminded of the problem by their own suffering from it. The second condition means that solving the problem requires sustained attention and effort, plus fundamental changes in social institutions or behaviour…The third condition means that the media’s sustained focus on the problem soon bores a majority of the public.”
In his 1972 article, Downs goes on to consider the classic problems of air and water pollution in the US, which at that time he placed about half way through the cycle. He actually thought that attention would rest longer on these issues than others, but for reasons that mostly make them different from climate change.
The pollution of the 1960s and 1970s was very visible, whereas greenhouse gas emissions are not. Local air and water pollution affected lots of people; climate change so far does not, at least in the affluent North. The blame for an earlier generation of pollution problems could be placed at the door of a clear set of villains – companies who could have prevented them but chose not to for reasons of profit. Cheap and available techniologies already existed to solve the problems. By comparison, we have no cheap and easy substitutes for fossil fuels, and we are all to implicated in their use.
Indeed, the only way in which climate change is like the earlier generation of environmental problems in Downs’ account is that it has created both private industries and public bureaucracies dedicated to solving it, and it is in the interests of these organisations to keep it in the piblic eye.
But for the moment at least, my reading of the situation is that (certainly in the UK, if not in the US), the biggest problem for climate change action in relation to the public and media is not scepticism, but a decline in attention. As Downs concludes:
“…we should not underestimate the American [for which read most rich countries'] public’s capacity to become bored- especially with something that does not immediately threaten them, or promise huge benefits for a majority, or strongly appeal to their sense of injustice”.