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Altered Habitat

Will public opinion shift with new evidence of climate change?

Public ambivalence about climate change in this country has been a perplexing — and vexing — puzzle for scientists, some policy makers, reporters, and others who operate on the assumption that facts will guide public decisions.

Comedian John Oliver did a recent shtick in which he staged a “mathematically representative” television debate on climate change. Two climate change deniers were on one side, 97 actor-scientists on the other, a true representation of the scientific consensus.

The release of a set of reports recently might be the evidence that finally pushes the climate change “debate” into the dark corner of science denial, where it can fester with theories that the moon landing was a hoax and the earth was made in seven days.


President Obama’s National Climate Assessment report was advertised as the work of more than 300 scientists. Their conclusions are not new to anyone paying moderate attention to what’s going on in the world. But it was packaged neatly with summaries of regional climate change effects. (The Northeast: Heat waves, heavy downpours, sea level rise; threats to infrastructure, agriculture, fisheries, and ecosystems.)

And, most significantly, it was written in the tense of “happening now.” This is not a problem, the president said in a blitz of publicity accompanying the report, that will affect only our grandchildren. Anthony Leiserowitz, who measures public opinion as director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, is encouraged by that strategy.

“What we know from much of our research is many Americans think climate change is distant in time — a generation or more down the road — and distant in space — this as about polar bears or small islands,” Leiserowitz said in an interview this week. “That makes it easy for many of them to put this on the back burner.


“The fundamental message of this report is climate change is here and now,” he said of the National Climate Assessment. “This report is really trying say, ‘Look America, you can see these impacts everywhere.’”

The second release, actually a pair of scientific reports from NASA and the University of California, said the melting of the western Antarctic ice shelf is now “unstoppable.” It will bring an inevitable sea level rise of 10 feet or more.

The Antarctic ice shelf is so vast that, yes, it will take centuries to melt. Even so, the consequences require action now. We will have to move cities far away from the waterfront, starting (in the United States) with Miami, New York, New Orleans, Tampa, and Boston, according to the World Bank. Boston, for example, will be awash in a sea rise of 7.5 feet. Add a strong storm at high tide and you have water in the second and third stories of buildings.

And these reports don’t count the simultaneous melting of the Greenland ice cap and the 21-foot sea level rise that could bring. Already, such forecasts must give pause to developers. They are investing in buildings that may well be here for a century or more, just as many of Boston’s current infrastructure contains buildings that old. Will they build if the most likely future tenants will be fish?

The reports overshadowed yet another report last week. This one, from an elite group of 16 retired generals and admirals, said climate change already is prompting outbursts of fighting globally and will certainly lead to more.


All of this evidence has been growing, but the American public — unlike those in many other countries — has been slow to accept that it’s a big problem. A Gallup poll in March showed only 24 percent of Americans worry much about climate change, and they put it near the bottom of a list of 15 pressing issues.

The latest reports have “the potential to fundamentally change the discourse, to pivot away from this stupid question of ‘is it real or not,’ Leiserowitz said. “The key question is how do we respond?

“Will this report suddenly convince all conservative Republicans that this is real? No, of course not. But not everybody is a hard-core denier,” he said. In fact, Leiserowitz’s polling suggests that the proportion of “dismissive” Americans who deny that humans are helping change the climate is only about 15 percent.

“But they are a really loud 15 percent,” he noted. “They are overly represented in Congress, and as result they appear to be much larger than they actually are.”

Leiserowitz said public opinion is affected mostly by weather, and the string of extreme weather events in the past two years may alter perceptions.

“Many people are connecting the dots and seeing broader patterns,” he said. “If something happens once its happenstance. Twice, it’s coincidence. Three times, and you are beginning to see a pattern. And if it happens five, 10, 25 times, people say, ‘whoa, something’s going on here.”


Doug Struck has been a journalist for 35 years and reports on environmental matters from Boston. He can be reached at