Global warming enters mainstream

As awareness of climate change grows, the issue is evolving from a divisive one to a concern for all

As awareness of climate change grows, the issue is evolving from a divisive one to a concern for all

Some news outlets are known to inject themselves into partisan political debates. Time isn't one of them. So when its April 3 cover proclaimed that global warming has brought the Earth to a "tipping point," it was a sign of a seismic shift in how the issue is perceived by the US public.

"The crisis is upon us," the story declared. "Something has gone grievously wrong... that something is global warming."

Once a bitterly disputed partisan issue, global warming - or "climate change," as it has been dubbed by those trying to soften its rhetorical blow - is now very close to implanting itself as an accepted fact in mainstream consciousness. This trend has been helped along by environmental interests that are using it to push their agenda more widely to the general public, and by corporations that are scrambling to position themselves as being in tune with the crisis before public opinion leaves them behind.

In a March phone survey by Time, ABC News, and Stanford University, 85% of 1,002 adults polled said global warming is probably happening, and 88% think global warming threatens future generations. Close to half said the issue is "extremely" or "very important" to them, up from 31% in 1998.

Environmental Defense (ED), a nonprofit activist group, teamed up with the Ad Council for a major campaign launched last month to take advantage of the building news coverage and to raise awareness of global warming. Charles Miller, ED's director of communications, says the Ad Council approached the group to help formulate the campaign, which will run for three years. "We think it is the 800-pound gorilla of environmental issues," he says.

The campaign's dramatic ads, including one that depicts global warming as a train preparing to run over a child, have garnered media interest, but not the opposition that they may have once engendered. "We expected a bit more of a backlash, but we haven't really seen that much," Miller says.

Pressure for solutions has even come from less traditional quarters. In February, 86 prominent evangelical Christian leaders launched the "Evangelical Climate Initiative," calling on the government and their fellow Christians to face global warming head-on. Jim Jewell, managing partner of Rooftop Mediaworks, which handles media relations for the effort, says the project is ongoing, with a second phase targeting college students to roll out in May.

"It's too early to tell whether it's going to provide the impetus to move the President and Congress," Jewell says. "Certainly, they know that the evangelical is not monolithic now on opposition to some of these efforts to stop global warming."

Historically, the media have presented global warming as an issue with a good deal of science behind it, but also a respectable level of opposition and denial. But activists who have watched the issue evolve say the credibility given to opponents is waning. Shawnee Hoover, campaign director of "Expose Exxon," run by the US Public Interest Research Group and others, says coverage has reached a critical mass in the past year, giving a boost to climate-related campaigns over other environmental movement elements. "Global warming [awareness] has really been peaking," she says.

Already, the ballooning prominence and credibility of the global warming movement has forced corporations to address the issue. Even Hoover, the Exxon opponent, gives credit to several other oil companies for their efforts to work with environmentalists to become more climate-friendly.

And the companies have been eager to communicate their progress. GE's massive "Ecomagination" campaign is perhaps the most visible example of the current crop of holistic, ongoing campaigns to brand companies as environmentally friendly.

"We clearly are reacting to climate-change concerns among our customers," says GE's executive director of communications Gary Sheffer. "For us, it's more an opportunity than a threat."

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