In short: it's a political problem. According to a recent study by Brulle and others, the degree of concern about climate change depends mainly on one's political position: either as a democrat or as a republican. The article explains this point and tells us much more; for instance how extreme weather events have no influence on public concern and how the efforts of scientists have, at best, only a marginal effect. Seen in this light, the turning of climate change into a politicized issue may well be the greatest tragedy of our times, as it made it impossible to attain the degree of consensus necessary to act decisively on the problem (h/t Max Iacono).
Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S., 2002 – 2010. Robert J. Brulle, Jason Carmichael and J. Craig Jenkins, Climatic Change, DOI 10.1007/s10584-012-0403-y
Excerpt from the "Conclusion" (highlight in boldface by "the frog")
.... we found that weather events, in themselves, do not influence the overall level of public concern (so far). The promulgation of scientific information about climate change has a small but significant effect. Science articles, generally not read by the public, have no discernible effect, while major assessment reports and articles on climate change in popular science magazines do affect public concern. The implication would seem to be that science-based information is limited in shaping public concern about the climate change threat. Other, more directly political communications appear to be more important.
The major factors that affect levels of public concern about climate change can be grouped into three areas. First, media coverage of climate change directly affects the level of public concern. The greater the quantity of media coverage of climate change, the greater the level of public concern. This is in line with the Quantity of Coverage theory of media effects, and existing individual level research on the impact of television coverage on climate-change concern. The importance the media assigns to coverage of climate change translates into the importance the public attaches to this issue. Second, in a society with a limited amount of “ issue space, ” unemployment, economic prosperity, and involvement in wars all compete with climate change for public concern.
The most important factor in influencing public opinion on climate change, however, 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, which increase and diminish public concern, respectively. This finding points to the effect of polarized political elite that is emitting contrary cues, with resulting (seemingly) contrary levels of public concern. As noted by McDonald ( 2009 : 52) “ When elites have consensus, the public follows suit and the issue becomes mainstreamed. When elites disagree, polarization occurs, and citizens rely on other indicators, such as political party or source credibility, to make up their minds. ” This appears to be the case with climate change.
The implication would seem to be that a mass communications effort to alter the salience of the climate change issue is unlikely to have much impact. A great deal of focus has been devoted to the analysis and development of various communication techniques to better convey an understanding of climate change to individual members of the public. However, this analysis shows that these efforts have a minor influence, and are dwarfed by the effect of the divide on environmental issues in the political elite. Additionally, the analysis has shown that, in line with the media effects literature, the effects of communication on public opinion regarding climate change are short lived. A high level of public concern over climate change was seen only during a period of both high levels of media coverage and active statements about the issue ’ s seriousness from political elites. It rapidly declined when these two factors declined. Thus, if public concern is to be sustained under the present circumstances, there is a need for continuous public communications efforts to maintain public support for climate change action in the face of opposing messaging campaigns (Habermas 1989 : 141).
The more important factor at the aggregate level is the polarized positions taken by Democrats and Republicans. This polarization over environmental issues is long standing, and has extended to the climate- change arena, making it a highly partisan issue. Given the vested economic interests reflected in this polarization, it seems doubtful that any communication process focused on persuading individuals will have much impact. As Orr ( 2005 ) has noted, the barriers to action on climate change are based in the distribution of social power in the economic, political, and cultural spheres. Introducing new messages or information into an otherwise unchanged socioeconomic system will accomplish little (Luke 2005 ). Observing the limits of communication to resolve conflicts of this nature, Strömbäch and Kiousis ( 2011 : 6) note that “ some conflicts and questions of power are rooted in enduring and incompatible differences between positions or interests, and cannot be resolved through communication. ”
Therefore, any communications strategy that holds Climatic Change out the promise of effectiveness must be linked to a broader political strategy. Political conflicts are ultimately resolved through political mobilization and activism. Further efforts to address the issue of climate change need to take this into account.