In an interview on NPR, Yale University's Anthony Leiserowitz said that the US population can be divided into 6 communities on the issue of climate change.
1. 12% of the population is alarmed and see global climate change as a serious threat and are seeking to take action.
2. An additional 27% are concerned. They recognize that climate change is happening and that it is caused by human activity, but they see it as a more distant threat.
3. 25% are cautious and still making up their minds.
4. 10% are disengaged and don't know anything about the issue.
5. 15% are doubtful. they see climate change as non-anthropogenic and part of natural cycles of climate change.
6. Finally 10% are dismissive; these are the climate change deniers. Although they are a small part of the population, they get a lot of media attention (think Senator Inhofe).
Given the range of opinions on climate change, what factors can change people's minds? While many of us may focus on the media, researchers at Columbia University suggest that:
The most important factor in influencing public opinion on climate change is the elite partisan battle over the issue. The two strongest effects on public concern are Democratic Congressional action statements and Republican roll-call votes [concerning the reality of climate change], which increase and diminish public concern, respectively. Without consensus among the elites, the issue does not become mainstreamed.
When there is no consensus, political affiliation tends to drive opinions regarding climate change. Right now, our political elites are focused on the election, and the most recent debates have centered on abortion, voter suppression, and taxes. However, this is why the down-ticket races are so important. We need to hold the senate and re-take the house.
By controlling congress we can limit the Republican roll-call votes which tend to diminish public concern about climate change.
This is also where presidential leadership can play an important role. President Obama had a lot on his plate during his first term--economic collapse, two endless wars, and trying to pass universal health care. He has also had to deal with a tea-party dominated House since 2011 and a senate whose main goal has been to deny him a second term. If we can re-elect him, he will be less constrained in his second term. This is an issue that needs leadership from the Democrats.
There is good news on the public opinion front, however. The LA Times reported in February that:
After several years of finding that fewer and fewer Americans believed in climate change, pollsters are now finding that belief is on the uptick.
The newest study from the National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change, which is a biannual survey taken since fall 2008 and organized by the Brookings Institute, shows that 62% of Americans now believe that climate change is occurring, and 26% do not. The others are unsure.
One reason for the uptick appears to be the wacky weather:
...our resurgent belief in global warming seems to be a function of the weather. A separate Yale survey this spring found that 82 percent of Americans had personally experienced extreme weather or natural disasters in the past year. And 52 percent said they believed the weather had been getting worse overall in recent years, compared to just 22 percent who thought it had gotten better.
Sixty-nine percent of respondents in that March poll went on to say that they believed global warming was affecting the weather in the United States. And that was before the Colorado wildfires and the most recent wave of storms and heat in the Midwest and Northeast, which have brought renewed media attention to climate change. The number might well top 70 percent today. Source
Now is the time for leadership on climate change. As ThinkProgress
The fact that Obama isn't talking about the issue or even using the word matters very much.