What is the top issue of our time?

Wen Stephenson’s piece in the Phoenix is getting a lot of attention right now. Stephenson argues that there is a massive culture of shirking going on about global climate change–among journalists. He argues, very passionately, that climate change is the top issue of our times, and that even in an election, media coverage of the issue is nowhere near where it needs to be: which is that this is an emergency demanding crisis-level coverage.

James Fallows of the Atlantic has already said about the piece:

At a time when both parties are saying that this is an “exceptionally important” election, yet neither will even discuss an issue that (I contend) will loom larger in historical accounts of this era than 99 percent of what is discussed in speeches, news analyses, and debates, this article is worth reading and thinking about.

I can’t do anything about media coverage, although the people I read (eg Jay Rosen) felt it was true. Recently, Twitter put up a new instant-mapping capability on the political campaigns (what is Obama saying about… what is Romney saying about…). Here’s the result for “climate”:


First, only one campaign is even talking about climate–the Obama campaign. Second, even that campaign barely mentions it on Twitter–just two tweets in fact (the bars in blue under the @barackObama label).

But what are Americans saying? How big of an issue are things like climate change, the environment and so on? If you ask people what their top issues of concern are the answer is clearly the economy. Take a look at these polls on “voting issues” for example. The economy is always the top issue, often by considerable margins. (Sidenote to demagogues: security, terrorism and immigration poll at less than 10 percent.)

When the environment is polled as an issue, again, large majorities are worried about it, and want something done about it. Very large majorities: nearly 70% of people in a typical poll said the environment is worse off compared to 10 years ago. On global warming, this poll shows that it’s happening now, and we did it:

“And from what you have heard or read, do you believe increases in the Earth’s temperature over the last century are due more to the effects of pollution from human activities, or natural changes in the environment that are not due to human activities?” Options rotated
Unsure . .
% % % . .
3/8-11/12 53 41 6 . .
3/3-6/11 52 43 5 . .
3/4-7/10 50 46 5 . .
3/6-9/08 58 38 5 . .
3/11-14/07 61 35 5 . .
3/13-16/06 58 36 6 . .
3/3-5/03 61 33 6 . .

So from 2003-2012, between 53 and 61 percent think it is the result of human activities; a pretty stubborn number.

Here’s my point: Given all this, where are geographers on the issue?

The environment is by far and away the clearest issue that we work on that is in the minds of the public. They are already convinced global climate change is happening and that it is anthropogenic. So I am heartened by looking at “sustainability” as a key word at last year’s AAG (this year’s is not yet searchable). There were sessions on investigating sustainability of particular regions such as Alaska, applications of it, and critiques of it as a way that capitalism reproduces itself though an emphasis on consumption.

Like Stephenson though, I wonder to what extent we’re understanding it as a crisis-level event, an emergency that is still going on (as Holly says on Red Dwarf).


2 responses to “What is the top issue of our time?

  1. as the greatest consumers we are the greatest abusers
    heres to a moratorium on the cartoon version of American politics:

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