Up and down with climate change

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”.



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14 responses to “Up and down with climate change

  1. Dean

    I have been thinking this about this quite a bit of late. In Australia, climate change has become mired in a protracted, highly politicised debate about how to put an initial price on carbon (yes, we’re that far behind…). The signs of climate change fatigue are pretty clear, even amongst the activists.

    Even if we do manage to get our very modest carbon price through our Parliament I hold very grave hopes for this issue to reignite in the next few years in Australia.

  2. Eliot Whittington

    So, what would be an interesting companion piece to this is some more thinking about the political impact in different countries of a lack of attention and how it matches up with actions taken so far. It strikes me, after all, that in some countries including the UK, the lack of political focus has allowed governments to go further than the broad populace would necessarily want. Could lack of attention actually make it easier to pass certain laws and harder to pass others? For example – I think we’ll struggle to get carbon pricing passed unless there’s some active political support (because, don’t worry Dean, outside the EU & some big companies I can’t see anyone that excited about a carbon price), but is it easier to do efficiency standards and renewables support if people aren’t watching, as it were?

    • Interesting thought Eliot. Some academics take the view that low interest amongst the general public means that policy ends up getting heavily influenced by lobby groups (both industry and green). Others take the view that as long as people aren’t paying that much attention, you can get away with policies that are not particularly visible to the public, like the EU emissions trading scheme, whereas a carbon tax would cause trouble. My view is that low attention means you can get some policies through, but if they do become very expensive or very visible, it becomes risky. Think of what happened in Spain with the solar PV feed in tariff.

  3. Really interesting. It certainly seems possible to argue that the reason that climate scepticism has achieved such prominence in the last year or so is that the wider issue has diminished in terms of popular attention while the sceptics, spurred on by ‘climategate’ and the ‘failure of copenhagen’, have become more vocal. I guess there’s also a potentially quite complicated feedback between the two things.

    While I think the gist of this is right, it’s worth noting that the climate sock article you link to points out that it might be too much to claim ‘climate change fatigue’ on the basis of the polling discussed.

    • My view is that the Climate Sock article is actually a bit unclear and mixes climate scepticism and climate fatigue, which are two different things. The evidence it points to suggests fatigue, not scepicism.

  4. Dean

    Great point Elliot.

    It’s not like education reform stops because schools are not on the front page of the paper. Moreover, the broad support for action on climate change suggests that when we’re just spending tax dollars (as opposed to making structural economic changes) it seems we’re able to get things through much more easily.

  5. Dean – note that Downs says that not all issue go through this cycle – those that affect everyone, and feed a constant stream of interesting stories to the media, tend to be permanently in the public eye, and I’d say that’s true of education. It usually features amongst the top 5 issues for voters in British general elections

  6. Very interesting. The fifth stage of Downs’ cycle may also entail a refocussing perhaps and, perhaps, a reframing of an issue. In the case of climate change, the UK public is now more likely to be concerned about closely related and overlapping issues, such as energy security and waste.

    The media is clearly in a climate “trance”. But coverage has evolved and become more specialised over the past couple of years. For instance, The Guardian and The Observer have picked up on “green growth” and “green jobs”. The Sunday Times’ energy and environment section is often devoted to new green technologies and their potential benefits and impacts. The BBC’s Richard Black has framed the climate change in terms of national and international security risks.

  7. Adam Gallon

    “…before Copenhagen gave the issue one last boost.”
    How about “…before Climategate gave the issue one last boost, by exposing the whole house of cards “?
    It appears not to have occured to you, that the public has started to realise, that the “problem” has been grossly over-hyped and hijacked by the usual collection of “Greens” (aka “Watermelons”) and politicians on the make.
    The public’s also started to be very aware, that the science behind the subject is very shakey and is being directed by political influences, the public’s also noted how every “solution” to the “problem” appears to involve taxation and wealth-transfer, usually from the less well-off in Europe, Australia/New Zealand & North America, to the very well-off in the “Developing Countries”.
    The public’s also noticed that the predictions of doom haven’t come to pass. Hurricanes & Typhoons, rather than the post-Katerina hype, are at historically low levels, no tropical islands have been inundated – indeed the opposite, the land area of Tuvalu is growing http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10222679 -, they’ve noticed that the policians leading the CAGW scares, fail to admit any of their predictions are in error – see Pachauri’s “Voodoo science” response, when the 2035 date for the loss of Himalayan glaciers was shown to be completely wrong.
    The public’s also realised that the so-called “Green Jobs” are an illusion, or come about at the cost of real jobs for more people. Our steel mills shut, their production is transfered to India, to mills owned by Pachauri’s employers.
    The feed in tariff fiddles have been noted, the public’s also noted that the wind-subsidy farms’ owners, not only get paid over the odds for producing power, but even get paid not to produce power!
    The public’s also noted that predictions of “Barbecue Summers” and “increasingly mild winters” have been completely wrong.
    Now, are any of you surprised by the public losing interest in the whole concept, thus the media loses interest as the stories won’t sell extra copy or attract extra advertising revenue?.

  8. jonjermey

    Quite so. There is a peculiar form of ‘issue blindness’ which interprets healthy and well-founded scepticism as ‘fatigue’, as if it were simply not possible for anyone to genuinely doubt the claims put forward by our would-be saviours. When AGW alarmists can understand how and why vast numbers of well-informed people can be so gauche as to actually doubt them, then they will be one step closer to putting a credible case.

  9. PaulM

    Interesting graph.
    Whether it is just fatigue, or whether people are really realising at last that the whole thing has been hugely over-exaggerated by the activists is not clear.
    But perhaps those employed as a “Head of Climate Change” or “Associate Director for Climate Change” should be thinking of looking for another job!

  10. Pingback: Dispeptic Sceptics | Political Climate

  11. Now a growing coalition of countries led by and other Pacific Small Island Developing States PSIDS are calling for climate change to be addressed as a security issue. .Putting aside for a moment the complex reality that climate change is all of the above do the PSIDS have a point? The strength of their argument has many political implications within the United Nations and its governing bodies. The PSIDS argue that climate change is a security issue for them and as such deserves the attention of the Security Council. Faced with rising sea levels the salination of farmland and more violent and changing weather patterns threat to the Pacific Island states is very real.

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