Global warming poll finds puzzling trend
A recent climate change poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press has spawned collective head-scratching in the media, including with yours truly.
The poll found that fewer Americans believe Earth is warming, regardless of cause, compared to a similar poll conducted in April 2008. In the latest poll, 57 percent of respondents said there is solid evidence that Earth's average temperature has warmed over the past few decades, a sharp decline from the 71 percent in the 2008 poll.
Of those who said Earth has been warming, just 36 percent said this trend is "mostly because of human activities," which was down from 47 percent in last year's poll. In addition, fewer respondents ranked climate change as a serious problem compared to last year.
Keep reading for more reaction to the Pew Research Center poll, and a creepy climate change video by the British government...
The poll highlighted, yet again, the partisan split on climate science, with just 35 percent of Republicans seeing solid evidence of rising temperatures, compared to 75 percent of Democrats. That's lamentable, considering that thermometers are nonpartisan. The sharpest declines in those who say warming is due to human activity has occurred among independents and Republicans.
An interesting twist to the poll findings was that it showed significant support for legislation that would set limits on greenhouse-gas emissions such as carbon dioxide, although few people had heard of the "cap and trade" legislation that passed the House and is pending in the Senate.
Many journalists and experts have commented on the poll results, some to criticize its methods and downplay its significance, and others to hold it up as evidence that the 'truth' about climate change is finally sinking in with the public.
David Roberts of the environmental publication Grist, wrote on Friday:
"It's peculiar that these polls are often taken as a judgment on the science itself, like Believers and Deniers are two teams duking it out and public acceptance is the score of who's got better facts. That's not how science works at all."
"The temptation is to respond to a poll like Pew's with lamentations about the state of science education--to imagine that the public, like scientists, can be swayed by the weight of empirical evidence. But the most important political takeaway is almost the opposite: popular belief in the science of climate change will follow popular support for clean energy, not the other way around. Make clean energy cheap, easily available, and desirable to the mainstream, and people will stop paying attention to industry-funded cranks and charlatans. There won't be the same anxiety and loss aversion to exploit."
The fact that President Obama spoke about clean energy in a major speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Friday, without explicitly addressing climate science, suggests that the administration agrees with that line of reasoning.
Another possibility, which was raised by Chris Good at the Atlantic, is that the partisan debate over "cap and trade" legislation is having a spillover effect on public attitudes towards climate science. In essence, Americans could be rejecting the problem along with the solution.
Taking a different approach, Jim Hoggan of the popular "DeSmogBlog," placed the blame squarely at the foot of the fossil fuel lobby.
"This downturn in public understanding of the climate crisis confirms that the corporate investment in climate confusion is paying a dividend. The public confusion campaigns launched by ACCCE, the Chamber, National Association of Manufacturers, American Petroleum Institute and a host of others, are all deliberately targeted at moving the dial on public opinion," Hoggan wrote.
However, perhaps Hoggan's view should be taken with a grain of salt, considering that he has a new book to sell, "Climate Cover-Up," that details the activities of the climate skeptic lobby. I agree with him that such groups are influential, but from what I've seen, most of this recent lobbying has been focused on contesting the specifics of the legislation, not on countering the science that shows the Earth is warming.
Tom Yulsman of the Center for Environmental Journalism blog questioned whether the layoffs of science and environmental reporters across the country is having some impact on public opinion:
"I'm wondering what role media have played in these trends. Science and environmental reporters have been laid off in droves at American news organizations. As far as I know, there is not a single full-time reporter or producer dedicated to these topics in all of American broadcast and cable news. At the same time, I don't think we can deny the influence of hyper-partisan talkers like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glen Beck, and the polarization of view that they help strengthen."
Speaking of partisans, the conservative "Planet Gore" blog at the National Review online speculated that President Obama is to blame for a cooling off period.
"What accounts for the shift in opinion? One possibility is that Obama's declining popularity has worn off on warmism. Belief in global warming because of human activity declined nine percentage points among Republicans and eight among Democrats, but a whopping 20 points among independents, the group most apt to change its mind about the president. Another possibility is that in a recession, people have real problems to worry about and thus are less likely to be concerned about hypothetical fears."
In the end, perhaps the poll indicates that a broader communications effort by the climate science community -- which, if anything, has become more confident that the long-term trend for Earth's average temperature is a warming one, and that human activity is likely the primary cause -- is needed sometime in the near future.
Such efforts can go horribly awry though, depending on their execution, as the British government just found out. This video, from a British government-sponsored climate change awareness campaign, may be the creepiest climate-related video I have ever seen.
The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.
| October 26, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
Categories: Climate Change, Freedman, News & Notes, Science
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