There’s a new Washington Post-ABC News poll out on climate change; Juliet Eilperin’s got a good piece up about it (despite the terrible headline, for which she is not responsible).

Having watched this story bounce around today, I’m frustrated yet again by how these polls are discussed. Here’s how I would write the lede to the story:

A ramped-up effort by conservatives and industry groups to cast doubt on climate science has largely failed to convince the public that the science is in error. The fact that the earth’s atmosphere has warmed over the last 100 years is accepted by 72 percent of the public, down from from 80 percent last year. The decline came principally from the ranks of self-identified Republicans. The partisan split has widened on the issue, but a solid majority of the public accepts the findings of climate science and supports legislative efforts to address climate change.

To our ears this sounds “biased,” because it accepts — without counter claims from the “other side” — the following three propositions:

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  1. climate change is a fact, a process already underway, not some sort of speculation or proposition of faith;
  2. a coalition of fossil fuel industries and conservative foundations have conspired for decades to deny this fact, aided and abetted by the American political media; and
  3. now that climate/energy legislation is a real possibility, that coalition is sharply ramping up its efforts.

All three of these propositions are demonstrably true; it’s impossible to understand climate and energy politics over the last two decades without understanding them. Yet they never seem to sink into the firmament. They don’t shape coverage; they’re not part of the background architecture of climate stories.

So polls about climate science get treated like the results of some contest between two ideological interest groups. It becomes a horserace story — “Democrats/environmentalists are losing” — rather than a story about danger to public health. It’s about environmentalists’ failure to persuade rather than the anti-scientific obscurantism that’s completely overtaken the Republican party, with financial support from large corporate interests.

If I can’t convince a guy standing in a downpour that it’s raining, seems to me the dumbass in the rain is the story, not my poor messaging.


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One final note: the drop among Independents (86 to 71 percent) is being oversold. In the last four or five years, there’s been a broad shift left in party identification. Many Independents became Democrats and many Republicans became Independents. The group “Independents” is therefore much more conservative than it used to be.


One final final note. Tell me, does this make sense to you?

Lisa Woolcott, another Republican poll respondent, said she doesn’t think that burning fossil fuels is “causing all the global warming,” adding: “We can’t control what happens in the atmosphere.” But Woolcott, a physician’s assistant who lives in Kansas City, Kan., said she supports the idea of a bill that would cap the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and doesn’t think the United States should predicate its actions on what other nations do. “We need to do what’s best for us,” she said. “I don’t think we should back down.”

One doesn’t want to mock, but I think it’s perfectly fair to say that collecting opinions like this is no way to chart a way forward on policy. We might heed the words of political scientist Larry Bartels:

Whether it would be desirable to have a democracy based on public opinion is beside the point, because public opinion of the sort necessary to make it possible simply does not exist. The very idea of “popular rule” is starkly inconsistent with the understanding of political psychology provided by the past half-century of research by psychologists and political scientists. That research offers no reason to doubt that citizens have meaningful values and beliefs, but ample reason to doubt that those values and beliefs are sufficiently complete and coherent to serve as a satisfactory starting point for democratic theory. In other words, citizens have attitudes but not preferences …

What these polls gather are attitudes. Climate change science has become “how do you feel about liberals?” Capping carbon elicits something different; competition with China elicits something different; clean air and water elicits something different. It may be helpful to understand these affective responses of the public, but they are no substitute for science and pragmatism in policymaking. Ultimately leaders are going to have to acknowledge the problem and deal with it. Waiting until all the polls line up is a gutless dereliction of duty.