The politically elite have the strongest influence on the public’s opinion of climate change, according to a study published Feb. 6 by Robert J. Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University.
The study paired Brulle with Jason Carmichael of McGill University and J. Craig Jenkins of Ohio State University and was published in the climate science journal “Climatic Change.”
According to a press release, the study conducted an empirical analysis of the factors affecting U.S. public concern about the threat of climate change between January 2002 and December 2010.
Brulle believes that climate change will be the biggest environmental issue of the 21st century.
“I think that it’s going to be a major political, economic and social issue that we are going to have to deal with,” he said. “It’s a critical part of a student’s education. The students here at Drexel now are going to live through it. Climate change is going to increasingly affect their world and their actions within it.”
Brulle cites the recent partnership between the Academy of Natural Sciences and Drexel University as a step in the right direction. He also praises the environment-related classes that Drexel now offers as a good way to raise awareness.
“I think it’s incumbent upon an educational institution like Drexel to make sure that those students understand that it’s to be affecting their lives and their children’s lives over the next several centuries,” he said. “This is not a short-term issue. This is a long-term issue that needs to be addressed, and it’s going to take a lot of careful thought to deal with it.”
The team examined five main factors that account for society’s shifting level of concern with climate change: extreme weather events, public access to accurate scientific information, media coverage, elite cues, and movement or countermovement advocacy.
Nicole Koedyker, a pre-junior business administration major and president of the Drexel Sierra Student Coalition, is a participant in the climate change awareness movement. She provided insight into the mindset of the masses with regard to climate change.
“There’s been a drop in concern. It’s become such a huge problem that I think students are tired of hearing about it. So they just kind of put it on the back burner,” she said. “If we can’t solve this problem and we go into an ice age, we don’t have anything else. This is where we live.”
She continued, “There are a lot of people that talk about, ‘Oh, I don’t have to recycle. It’s too late. There’s no point in it. It doesn’t do anything.’ But the analogy that [I] always use is that if a loved one was sick and a doctor said there’s nothing else you can do, you wouldn’t just sit there and wait for something to happen. You would get out there and find new doctors or try to find some other help. We shouldn’t stop doing things to help the planet just because someone else says it’s not worth it,” Koedyker said.
Brulle’s study states that “while media coverage exerts an important influence, this coverage is itself largely a function of elite cues and economic factors. Weather extremes have no effect on aggregate public opinion. Promulgation of scientific information to the public on climate change has a minimal effect.”
With this in mind, Brulle argues that environmental disasters can have little to no weight in public opinion despite vast media coverage.
“The BP oil spill, you’re seeing pelicans being covered with oil and oil rolling down the beach and all those famous shots of the oil spilling. But that’s not what people see when they think about climate change,” Brulle said. “They see the hurricanes, floods, droughts, polar bears swimming in the ocean or ice caps melting. So it doesn’t surprise me that the BP oil spill wouldn’t lead to increases in climate concern. In fact, there is a good argument that it would crowd out other issues or other news.”
Brulle has additionally authored numerous articles and book chapters on environmental science, and he is a frequent media commentator on climate change. He co-teaches an online course on climate change available each quarter to Drexel students.