Stories of Climate Change: Competing Narratives, the Media, and U.S. Public Opinion 2001–2010

By Frederick W. Mayer

Fritz MayerFrederick W. Mayer

Shorenstein Center Fellow, Fall 2011
Sanford School of Public Policy,
Duke University

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A decade that began with optimism for those advocating action to combat climate change ended in 2010 with dashed hopes. Momentum slowly grew in the first half of the decade. By 2007 there was a strong consensus among scientists that the problem was real and its consequences potentially devastating, and there was broad public support for action in the US and across the globe. With the election in 2008 of Barack Obama and of Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, environmental advocates were confident that some form of environmental legislation would be enacted and, even more ambitiously, that the US could bring the world together on a binding global agreement. But at decade’s end, less than two years later, after the disappointment of Copenhagen and the quiet death of “cap and trade” legislation, limits on greenhouse gas emissions seemed more remote than they had at its beginning.

What happened? Many things, of course, but of perhaps paramount significance was a shift in public attitudes. Public belief in global warming had ebbed and flowed somewhat over the years, but the general trend had been towards an increasing level of belief and sense of urgency, so that by mid 2006, 77 percent of Americans answered “yes” to the question “Is there solid evidence that the average temperature on Earth has been getting warmer?” The same percentage agreed again in early 2007, just as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its most strongly worded report yet and the mainstream press, at least, declared the science to be settled. But then public attitudes started to erode.

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