Whether the issue is a continuing problem of significant importance to society, or a relatively new and unheard of phenomenon, public attention and activism tends to follow similar patterns of cycling attitudes and behaviors. As Anthony Downs explains in an article written more than 40 years ago, issues regarding the environment tend to “suddenly leap into prominence, remain there for a short time, and then gradually fade from the center of public attention.” He calls this process the “issue-attention cycle,” one of the most intriguing theories regarding environmental public opinion. Even though this article was written in the 1970’s, Downs’ theory contains crucial insight into what is currently happening with public opinion about the environment today. Ultimately, Anthony Downs’ theory on the issue-attention cycle has the potential to aid in our understanding of how American attitudes towards improving the quality of the environment are shaped, sustained, and lost.
In order to best attempt to analyze the public’s current opinions on the environment, it is critical to first understand how Downs defines the issue-attention cycle, specifically his description of the stages that are involved. Essentially, and rooted both in “the nature of certain domestic problems and in the way major communications media interact with the public,” there are five stages of the issue-attention cycle. The first stage, known as the pre-problem stage, takes place when a highly undesirable condition or situation occurs that has not yet caught the attention of the public, regardless of whether or not experts or interest groups were already aware of the problem. The next stage, known as the stage of alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm, consists of the public suddenly becoming both “aware of and alarmed about the evils of a particular problem.” This awareness is usually accompanied by what Downs refers to as “euphoric enthusiasm,” due to the common belief that one can “solve the problem” or achieve something effective within a relatively short time. In other words, and as rooted in the “great American tradition of optimistically viewing most obstacles to social progress as external to the structure of society itself,” the public genuinely believes that any situation or obstacle can be overcome by simply devoting sufficient effort to it.
The next two stages highlight the decline of interest within environmental issues, resulting in an immense decline in euphoric enthusiasm. Thus, the third stage of the issue-attention cycle is realizing the cost of significant progress. This entails the spread of a gradual realization that the cost of solving the problem is much higher than originally expected. More specifically, it would take a great deal of money and resources, as well as “major sacrifices by large groups in the population.” This results in a realization by the public that the problem is usually a direct result from some extremely beneficial aspect of their lives. For example, smog and air pollution can be a result from the increased use of cars, so not only would cutting down on how often one drives a car decrease this pollution, but would also decrease in the advantages that owning a car contains. For some people, sacrificing these advantages comes as no easy task, and most don’t want to sacrifice at all.
Hence, and as Downs so succinctly puts it, the previous stage “almost imperceptibly” transforms into the fourth stage; the gradual decline of intense public interest. Essentially, and as more and more people realize the difficulties and time consumption involved with solving the problem, several reactions take place. Some people may get discouraged, others feel “positively threatened by thinking about the problem,” and still others simply become bored with the issue. Of course, a combination of these feelings can occur as well, but it is essential to note that what tends to happen during this stage is that the public desire to keep attention focused on the issue at hand gradually fades away. Ultimately, by this point in time another issue seeking attention has already emerged within the second phase, becoming a “more novel and thus more powerful claim upon public attention.”
The fifth and final stage, the post-problem stage, occurs when an issue has been replaced and “public concern moves into a prolonged limbo.” Furthermore, sporadic instances or recurrences of interest are likely to occur, especially due to the fact that during the time of interest on a given topic, new institutions, programs, or policies may have been created that contain the possibility to have continued, albeit to a much smaller degree, aiding in discovering solutions to the issue. What is key to understand here is that any major problem that was once elevated through the previous stages of the issue-attention cycle has the potential to “sporadically recapture public interest” once in the post-problem stage. In addition, problems that have managed to go through the cycle contain a much higher average level of attention, public effort, and general concern than those still in the pre-discovery stage.
The issue-attention cycle theory contains crucial insight into what is currently happening with public opinion about the environment today. For example, in the year since Hurricane Sandy struck the Mid-Atlantic, news articles have widely declared that the storm has “changed the public’s view of weather threats” and that “resilience” would be the environmental buzzword of 2013. However, as highlighted in a fairly recent article by Brian Kahn, Hurricane Sandy hasn’t done much to shift the climate narrative. In fact, while policy has moved forward in a number of the states most affected by Sandy, the broader U.S. public has shown little interest in carrying the conversation to the national level.
Taking the example of Hurricane Sandy further we can see some interesting correlations between Downs’ issue-attention cycle and public opinions on climate change. If we consider the pre-poblem stage to be the imminent threat of climate change, then Hurricane Sandy perfectly exemplifies the second stage of alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm. A weekly breakdown of search data in the U.S.shows that in the run up to and immediate aftermath of Sandy, the public showed a greater in the terms “climate adaptation,” “disaster preparedness,” and “sea level rise.” However, public interest quickly waned with no discernible trend in the year since the storm. Ironically, while the media declared Sandy a conversation changer, there’s been no major shift in media coverage either. Searching newspapers, magazines, newswires, and other media shows the same post-Sandy peak in coverage mentioning the there terms, but no major changes in the long run.
In just a matter of months, public interest in Sandy began to fade, entering the declining stages of euphoric enthusiasm. Perhaps it was because hurricanes are simply not universally relatable, having left a large part of the U.S. unscathed. Or perhaps people simply don’t change their minds about issues as easily. As stated by Chris Borick – the director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion – “In public opinion, we don’t often see things move dramatically. It’s more the norm that people don’t change their views than do change their views, especially when something becomes more entrenched with ideological and political arguments.” Clearly, climate change fits into this category very well. Having now entered the post-problem stage, public concern about climate change has once again entered a state of prolonged limbo, at least until the next environmental crisis or natural disaster demands our attention.
As we can see, the issue-attention cycle as presented by Anthony Downs contains many practical uses within the understanding of public opinion and environmentalism. Over long periods of time, public interest has the potential to pique and drop on multiple occasions, with the media playing an influential role in exactly where and when this occurs. Ultimately, even though the theory was initially presented back in the 1970’s, it still holds true today as a vital tool in our understanding of how American attitudes towards improving the quality of the environment are shaped, sustained, and lost.
Downs, A. (1972). Up and Down with Ecology: The “Issue-Attention” Cycle. Public Interest, 28: 38-51. Retrieved May 15th, 2014.
Kahn, B. (October, 2013). Hurricane Sandy Hasn’t Shifted Climate Narrative. Retrieved May 16th, 2014, from Climate Central.