For a guy committed to combating climate change, Al Gore’s plans for his prizewinnings make good sense.
Gore this morning said he’ll donate his share of the Nobel Peace Prize to an outfit “devoted to changing public opinion in the U.S. and around the world about the urgency of solving the climate crisis.” That suggests Gore believes public opinion isn’t quite up to speed on the issue – and from his perspective, he’s right.
On one hand, public concern about climate change has soared: In a poll we did last spring, 33 percent of Americans volunteered it as the world’s biggest environmental problem, the top mention by far and double what it was a year earlier. The related issue of air pollution was second, with all other answers in the single digits.
However, fewer than half said they believe global warming is caused mostly by human activity (albeit up 10 points from a year earlier, to 41 percent); 56 percent said they believe there’s still substantial scientific disagreement on whether it’s occurring (down eight points, but still a majority); and just a narrow majority, 52 percent, said it was extremely or very important to them personally.
Other results, similarly, show levels of alarm below Gore’s own. The poll found broad agreement (86 percent) that global warming will be a serious problem if nothing is done to reduce it – but fewer, 57 percent, saw it as “very” serious. And only about a quarter thought a “great deal” in fact can be done to reduce global warming and its effects on people and the environment. (Still, seven in 10 thought the federal government should be doing more than it’s doing now to try to address the issue.)
Elsewhere, a Pew Global Attitudes poll in 37 countries last spring found concern about pollution and the environment up in 20 of them, and majorities in 25 calling global warming a very serious problem – but not in some especially populous places, such as China (where just 42 percent, in an urban-only sample, called it very serious) Russia (40 percent) and Indonesia (43 percent); it was just 45 percent in Great Britain. (Compare these to Japan, where 78 percent called it very serious, and Brazil, 88 percent. Gore needn’t advertise there.)
What ultimately could move public opinion on the issue may not be so much whether scientists are seen to agree about it, or whether Gore’s group itself can change public attitudes, but personal experience. Forty-one percent of Americans in our poll last spring said average temperatures in their area seem to have been going up lately; more, 54 percent, said overall weather patterns where they live have been “more unstable.” To the extent that these experiences evolve, public attitudes well may follow.
There is, as well, a political aspect to all this – Republicans are far more apt to be skeptical about climate change, and the Nobel for Gore may not be exactly what it takes to persuade them.
As far as Gore himself, the Nobel naturally boosts speculation about his possible presidential ambitions. But winning prizes and winning votes are different things. The Oscar for his climate change movie last winter didn’t materially change Gore’s support for the Democratic nomination for president. In the latest polling he’s at about 10 percent support – well back from Hillary Clinton, who was prompt this morning in congratulating the former vice president.
(Also see our coverage of Gore's Nobel prize on our politics page.)