Experts debunk polls claiming fewer Americans believe in climate change
Cross-posted from Climate Progress.
Politicians, pundits, and the public have all been told by the media and others that public belief in global warming has dropped sharply. Except that it hasn’t, as polling by Stanford, Ipsos, and Reuters make clear.
Yes, other polls, notably by Gallup and Pew, do seem to seem to show a sharp drop. But in exclusive interviews with Climate Progress, two leading experts on climate, public opinion, and media coverage — Jon Krosnick and Max Boykoff — explain what’s really going on.
The big apparent drop in some polls is almost certainly due to the combination of the collapse in media coverage of global warming, and pollsters asking a deeply flawed question.
How is that possible? Well, let’s look at a typical media spin on the subject, “Where Did Global Warming Go?” by Elisabeth Rosenthal in The New York Times last month:
Across the nation, too, belief in man-made global warming, and passion about doing something to arrest climate change, is not what it was five years or so ago, when Al Gore’s movie had buzz and Elizabeth Kolbert’s book about climate change, “Field Notes From a Catastrophe,” was a best seller. The number of Americans who believe the earth is warming dropped to 59 percent last year from 79 percent in 2006, according to polling by the Pew Research Group.
Hmm. That’s a pretty big drop — except the Pew Research group doesn’t actually ask people whether they believe the earth is warming!
Unfortunately, Pew asks people [PDF], “From what you’ve read and heard, is there solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades, or not?” Instead of asking people what they believe or think, Pew asks them what they’ve read or heard.
Both Krosnick and Boykoff make a strong case that this rather fatally taints the whole question, especially since media coverage — which represents much if not most of what the public reads or hears on climate change — collapsed in 2010. Boykoff has an excellent new book, Who Speaks for the Climate? Making Sense of Media Reporting on Climate Change. He discusses this specific subject in a must-read section titled “Polling and public sentiment.”
I’ve long been a fan of Boykoff’s work and interviewed him last week. It was his research (among others) that documented the recent media collapse in climate coverage in this stunning chart:
There is a brief spike in late 2009 around Copenhagen (and Climategate), but media coverage has crashed back to 2005 levels. You can see the same effect in the TV coverage:
So it’s no big surprise that asking people climate questions based on “what you’ve read and heard” will lead to a sharp drop from levels when people read or heard much more about global warming.
Boykoff told me that he agreed with Krosnick that people’s underlying beliefs about climate change were “generally stable.” As he put it:
If the media is suffocating an issue, it can fall out of the public mind and policy agenda.
Boykoff is not a fan in the least bit of either poorly worded polls or media coverage of such polls, as he makes clear in his book:
Unless there is a global plebiscite or referendum on whether the climate is changing, such questions are at best distracting and at worst destructive to work that seeks to enhance public understanding and consistent, measured consideration of the range of climate policy alternatives …
In this way, mass media do damage by reducing issues of risk and expert-based scientific understanding to that of mere opinion.
I also had a long discussion with Stanford’s Krosnick. He has written entire journal articles about the importance of question wording and about the specific influence of introductory clauses on the outcome of polls.
The short version is, as he explained to me, that words matter and people answer the question they are asked. People’s underlying beliefs are pretty stable, as his polling shows (with the exception of a segment of the conservative population, but that’s another blog post). If you want the long version, he gave a 25-minute talk at the American Meteorological Society on this specific topic that you can watch here (it can take a while to load).
Krosnick told me that there’s no sign of shrinkage of the “issue public” — the 15 percent or so of the public that is highly concerned about climate change, that donates and votes based on the issue.
Krosnick has done a great deal of public opinion analysis in this area that shows ongoing, strong support for action on climate change among the public. He analyzed the 2008 presidential election and the 2010 congressional election and explained in an email:
Our research suggests that it would be wise for the president and for all other elected officials who believe that climate change is a problem and merits government attention to say this publicly and vigorously, because most Americans share these views. Expressing and pursuing green goals on climate change will gain votes on election day and seem likely to increase the president’s and Congress’ approval ratings.
Of course, team Obama — and a remarkable number of progressives and pundits — have bought into the nonsensical and ultimately self-destructive view that climate change is not a winning issue politically.
It now seems clear that some of the reason for that mistaken view is flawed polling and equally flawed media coverage. Indeed, we have this absurd circularity where media coverage of global warming drops, flawed polls suggest the public’s belief in global warming has dropped, and that, of course, discourages the media (and politicians) from focusing on the issue. That would seem to be yet another worrisome climate feedback.