Al Gore has his job cut out for him.

| July 16, 2006 | 6 Replies

Like so many other complex issues, Americans don’t seem to understand global warming. In a Gallup poll conducted in March, respondents ranked their level of concern regarding several environmental issues. When asked to rank their level of concern over global warming, 36% of Americans claimed that it worried them “a great deal”.

Global warming, one of the most imminent environmental problems, ranked lower on people’s priorities than pollution of drinking water, pollution of lakes and rivers, maintenance of the nation’s supply of fresh water, and the hole in the ozone layer.

Clearly some people haven’t paid much attention to environmental problems over the years. Sure, the hole in the ozone layer still presents a problem, but since the global ban on its main cause, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the severity of that particular situation has lessened greatly. Meanwhile, the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming continue to grow unchecked in the nations that emit the most, including of course the US.

And what of this water purity concern? How kind of Americans, who enjoy tap water more pure and safe than bottled, to fret over the water purity of the less privileged countries around the world. Yet somehow I suspect that the water purity of Third World countries doesn’t come to mind when Americans say that water purity and supply worries them. I can’t say for certain, but I imagine that Americans perceive their water purity as less than its (relatively) pristine reality. Perhaps the marketing of bottled waters, using crisp graphics of clean mountain streams and untainted ice drifts, has led me to this conclusion.

In another fit of environmental naiveté, Americans claim that they would happily take measures to better the world around them by walking, biking, and using mass transit more often, or by turning down the thermostat a few degrees and washing clothes in cold water (70% and 80%, respectively). These small sacrifices sound like a great step toward responsibility. But Americans don’t actually take these steps, for reasons unclear. Unless they expect some kind of national movement to initiate the use of mass transit, for example, people could begin to take the bus whenever they please. Shouldn’t the next step after declaring willingness to do something involve actually doing that something?

Conditions do not look optimistic, but hopefully An Inconvenient Truth and any media chatter it inspires will get Americans to actually think about global warming, and even more challenging, will get them to actually do something about it.

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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Current Events, Energy, Environment, Science, Statistics, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (6)

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  1. highandmighty says:

    What is language but a means of self deception when applied in these instances? To spout platitudes and express sympathy with a cause gives the majority of self absorbed americans a great feeling. No one will hold them accountable to those words, and so they deceive themselves and other blind people around them. Like so many psuedo sociopaths. We were radical rebels when we founded this country, independent of mind, and we still largely are, if I might generalize for a moment, and that streak of inependence still runs strong. I do think that enviromental awareness will only come from legislation, and so bringing larger government, greater intrusion. A physicist told me that he gives the world ten years tops. We don't have that long to change a mindset.

  2. Erika Price says:

    I agree with the dismal reality that most people have fooled themselves about environmental issues. I think people convince themselves that they've done everything possible, and that they know more than enough about the world around them, and then they go watch some reality television or something.

    But a word about the larger government interference thing. We need regulations, that we can all see plainly, but that brings with it an additional rub. Corporations, so closely connected to government offices, pull as much weight as they can to slide past regulations or get an easy deal. When government grows, corruption inevitably follows. Fortunately, a few practical solutions to environmental issues have worked in the past. The US has used an essentially free-market based cap and trade system to deal with issues such as sulfur dioxide (acid rain) and lead content in gasoline, and it has worked quickly and phenomenally well. I'll have more on this later, because I think the specific course of action in fixing environmental problems needs a lengthy discussion too.

    I don't know how we can get people biking more, though. You'd think the environment and obesity problems would deliver enough of a one-two punch.

  3. John says:

    Another interesting piece Erika. I watched "Global Warming: What you need to know" with Tom Brokaw last night but have yet to see "An Inconvenient Truth."

    It is amazing how little effort is needed to make an impact on how much we as individuals are harming our environment. My wife and I have been recycling just about everything we possibly can and as a localized result, we take out the trash rather infrequently. It is disappointing that so many restaurants use styrofoam for their take-out containers, but we have been trying to bring our own reusable ones when we know we are going out. Also we have been using CFL bulbs for years; I think the light output is much better than traditional bulbs and we have save a fair amount on our electric bills.

    I hope to make a more significant difference a couple years down the road when I am finished with my MURP degree (MA in Urban Planning). However, for the time I can only keep working on our own impact and try to spread the word to others on the ease of "converting."

    Thanks

    John

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    I like to quantify things in ways that are easy to understand, because I think it helps to put things in perspective. I saw a graph a few years ago that showed the amount of air pollution a motor vehicle generates in one year (assuming it is driven the number of miles that is typical for the average American driver) versus the weight of the vehicle. Essentially, the amount of air pollution (in pounds) equals the weight of the vehicle. Thus, a 5,000 pound SUV will produce about 5,000 pounds of air pollution each year, while a 3,000 pound compact (which uses less gasoline than an SUV to travel the same distance) will produce about 3,000 pounds of air pollution each year. I think people should think about such numbers when they buy a car. In fact, I think such numbers should be listed on the car's sales sticker, alongside the fuel consumption information.

    The problem with air pollution, of course, is that it is one more example of what economists call "the tragedy of the commons." Whenever a resource is shared by everyone, no single individual feels it is his responsibility to protect that resource. Whether it is a species of animal that is pushed to extinction (e.g., the woolly mammoth, the dodo bird) or our planet's atmosphere (polluted to toxic levels), common ownership tends to create widespread exploitation. Indeed, common ownership will often *accelerate* the total destruction of a resource, because each individual has an economic incentive to maximize his own consumption before the resource is gone. Many species of

    The only reliable ways to avoid the tragedy of the commons are through either private ownership (e.g., capitalism) or government regulation. Since the atmosphere can't be subdivided and sold in individual lots, government regulation is the only effective option for addressing the problem of global warming. Unfortunately, as Erika observes, when government grows, corruption follows. This is especially so with matters of international law, because of the dearth of international law enforcement.

  5. Erika Price says:

    Thanks for the information on car size vs emissions amount, grumpy- that puts things in perspective very easily, and I wish more people knew that. Of course, even if we listed air pollution amounts on a vehicle, most people would ignore the numbers in favor of the one that concerns them personally- fuel economy. And even with gargantuan fuel prices, people still thoughtlessly run out and buy Escalades and Hummers. I can't wrap my brain around that one.

  6. Scholar says:

    Sorry to re-hash the same arguement, but a smaller lighter car will generally have better gas mileage, emissions, and performance but gives up mass, which is often beneficial in order to survive a collision with another vehicle. In other words, to reduce pollution, the electorate will likely continue to downsize America's fleet by penalizing auto companies (see CAFE standards Corporate Average Fuel Economy). In America, having a big car has long been considered a symbol of status, but I'm starting to respect those who buy the smaller European type cars (i.e. the mini) and hopefully, the idea may be catching on.

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