First things first: Another week of waiting for details of Senate legislation left little public grist this week. The Economist runs a climate package, which is worth reading. Beyond that, it’s a good time to take a step back.
Last week, Gallup released results of its latest global warming poll. They found that nearly half (48 percent) of Americans believe that the seriousness of global warming is “generally exaggerated.” That’s up from 41 percent in 2009 and 31 percent in 1997. The gap narrowed between people who believe climate change is anthropogenic or natural, 50 percent to 46 percent. Thirty-two percent of respondents think they will be affected by global warming, down eight points since 2008.
A Media Experiment Gallup released its poll results here, and in the hours and days afterwards, journalists and bloggers plastered it throughout the Web. This speed and ubiquity recommend the poll as a kind of probe, to see what happens to information as it enters the internet climosphere. The most visible conclusion is that the Internet is all too willing to provide an explanation for data that has no definitive explanation.
The poll results proliferated through the web’s vast information vacuum with impressive speed if you’ve ever tried to make that happen on purpose. Gallup started more than 70 years ago. It is nearly synonymous with polling. At a time when independent, non-partisan institutions, namely traditional media, are under siege, it’s powerful reinforcement that independence is a good thing and worth protecting.
Other polls conducted in the last six months or so reveal a similar trend of declining interest or concern about environmental issues. The two most frequent explanations are the economic crisis and the organized public campaigns to discredit climate science. Pew Research made headlines last October with a poll showing a 14-point drop in the percentage of respondents who think there is solid evidence that the earth is warming. American University researchers, working with Yale and George Mason universities, recently challenged perceptions of the under-35 crowd and climate. The study shows that young adults are split and on some metrics less engaged than the older generation.Wwvews.org has done some interesting work on deliberative polling.
A media circus: The second-least scientific of all investigations, a Factiva search, turned up a not-surprising small number of old-media articles about the poll. Some news organizations have, or used to have, policies that prohibit stories specifically about poll-number releases. Maybe it was seen as “manufacturing news.” The USA Today pins the 20-year low interest in environmental issues on economic hardship. Six of eight environmental issues, including climate, attracted record-low interest. The conservative Washington Times can’t resist an opportunity to make fun of Al Gore and recent winter weather. The Financial Times rounds up poll reaction on its blog, emphasizing the complexity of explaining changes in public views. Josh Nelson at EnviroKnow contributed this interesting partisan break down of Gallup data, which rhymes with Gallup’s own look at changing sentiments among U.S. conservatives.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the internet is an invention optimized mostly for people who want to send each other cute pictures of their cats, whenever possible with funny nonstandard English captions attached. So instead of doing the useful thing, offering you snapshots of important things that happened in climate this week, I dived into the feline underbelly of the web to see the shenanigans going on with the Gallup poll.
Stephen Rex is relieved that “Nearly Half Of All Americans Calling B.S. On Global Warming.” The professionals at ClimateGate.tv (tagline: “Arrest the Crimatologists”) paste in the Gallup release. Marc Morano, the former aide to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), runs an operation called Climate Depot that feeds a lot of the AGW ((anti-)anthropogenic global warming) blogosphere. This week he asks, “How could Americans show less concern?!” The least scientific of all investigations, the Google Blog search, turned up far fewer liberal posts that match the breathless, ad hominem, conspiracy-exposing tone of these conservatives blogs. Certainly, that doesn’t mean they’re not out there. Perhaps the garden-variety liberal recreational bloggers invoke their breathless, ad hominem, conspiracy-exposing outrage elsewhere. Or, maybe they’re too busy uploading pictures of their cats with funny captions.
What it all means: At least two things are missing from the proliferation of Gallup data.
First, it would be helpful if more people understood how to contextualize poll questions. Jon Krosnick of Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment pours over poll questions and data, and conducts surveys, too. He pays close attention to the wording of questions, and has a list of suggestions about how to write questions that will elicit more robust answers than others. For example, the “multi-barreled question” offers respondents too many options, confusing what they actually think. A recent Woods Institute/Associated Press poll found that amid the Climategate controversy, Americans’ trust in climate science dropped by five percent — from 80 percent in 2008 to 75 percent in 2009. Pollsters attribute the drop to shifting sentiments among Americans who are already disinclined to trust climatologists.
The other missing piece has to with climate science itself. By the standards of general public discourse, there are, egad, right answers to many questions (By the standards of science, there are many questions in spots where the public sees right answers). It’s not the pollsters’ job to point this out. Part of the problem is it’s not entirely clear whose job it is. American University’s Matthew Nisbet writes about the predicament climate scientists are currently in, as does Newsweek‘s Sharon Begley. Many other professional communicators are limited by partisan affiliation, advocacy ties, or general busy-ness.
It’s clear from this week’s blog tour what online activists do with poll results. What do politicians do with them? There’s much conjecture. Politicians and staffs tend to be less than forthcoming on the issue. There’s been some formal study of the question. A quick literature dive dug up this précis, from a summary of “Poll Use and Policymaking in the White House,” 1993-2000, by Jeane Zaino:
The case analysis shows that polls are used in a variety of ways, not only to pander and craft rhetoric, but also to set parameters, legitimize, and develop an offensive strategy. The findings show that while polls are used in ways that result in responsiveness to the majority will, they are also used in ways that do not. Democratic officials not only act contrary to popular opinion, but polls aid in this endeavor. These findings suggest that while polls do not consistently undermine democratic government, neither do they necessarily facilitate it either. Consequently, those seeking a larger voice for the public in democratic affairs are cautioned against relying on polls as a primary linking mechanism.
Climate Post book club, parts 2 and 3: Here’s what’s really driving this whole post.
Sorting through books in the basement last weekend, I came across John LeCarre’s The Russia House, his 1989 thriller about a book publisher who becomes an accidental spy when handed a manuscript documenting how the Soviets faked having a nuclear arsenal for 50 years. Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer made starred in a movie based on it a year later.
One question struck me as sat down and flipped through the novel: Why didn’t The Russia House, which did very well, inspire a grassroots movement of Soviet-arsenal deniers to try and dismantle U.S.-U.S.S.R. negotiations on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START)?
The last book I read was Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, which after the IPCC reports, might be the most influential book ever written about climate change. (Capsule review: Without addressing its unusual presence in the climate debates, State of Fear is a more devastating assault on the English language and the literary convention of the novel than on climate science.)
By the time State of Fear was published, in 2003 or so, partisanship and polarization had an extra 15 years to electronically cordon off right, left, green, and non-green communities from each other. The community of Crichton’s readers had already assembled for him. All he needed to do was strike a match. Judging by the results of all these polls, that task is just going to get easier and easier.