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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 10/26/2009

Global warming poll finds puzzling trend

By Andrew Freedman

* D.C. Area Forecast | Enter our photo contest *

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.

By Andrew Freedman  | October 26, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, News & Notes, Science  
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No one trusts the government's current plans to fix the problem. If people admit to a problem, there will be more push for a solution. I don't like the current solutions, "cap&trade", "no new 90% less carbon emission coal plants". "No nuclear options"

Why would I admit to a problem when the solutions are worse than the problem itself?

Posted by: willb1 | October 26, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

I think the wording in your poll is misleading, as most people should know that the planet is warming, but the question is it a natural cycle or are humans to blame. I would answer the poll, that "yes" I believe the earth is warming, but "no" I am not convinced it is due to human activity.

Posted by: crozet | October 26, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Note: The original poll in this post has been deleted and replaced with a new one, because the original failed to include the third option ("no change"). All previous votes have been lost, so you already voted you should vote again (it will allow you to since it's technically a brand new poll).

Posted by: CapitalWeatherGang | October 26, 2009 12:18 PM | Report abuse


The Pew poll asked both questions -- is the planet warming, and if so is it due to human activity (or not)? As this post notes, the results of the Pew poll have made news b/c both fewer people believe Earth is warming at all (regardless of cause), and b/c fewer people who believe Earth is warming blame human activity.

Posted by: CapitalWeatherGang | October 26, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

I think that the Earth is warming. I think man has contributed significantly to all types of extinctions from micro-climate change.

If you change enough micro-climates and as a result you lose 95% of the biodiversity, then why all the scepticism?

If the mideast was deforested centuries ago to build cities like Gigalamesh, and today are deserts without any of the climate or biodiversity of the previous epochs, then how can you say man has no impact?

A micro-climate is responsible for almost all forms of life. When the Colorodo River stopped hitting the ocean, the entire delta changed ecology. Damming a river then is just as damaging as mountaintop removal as is burning the coal.

The reason why the poll numbers have dropped is because people without food on the table or the hope of a roof over their children's head are no longer concerned about humanity.

The USA has been on a path towards 3rd world obsolescence since off-shoring jobs started. The conquest of the mid-east to supply oil for this flash-in-the-pan economy is winding down. What will be left is the toxic trace elements of corporate rape across all of the planet.

Profits as if people don't matter. If it is economically profitable to destroy the planet, we will.

EF Schumaker 1973

Posted by: ender3rd | October 26, 2009 12:40 PM | Report abuse

Blaming the drop in numbers on the efforts of the fossil fuel industry or some kind of climate change cover-up seems doubtful. Surely those factors were just as strong in April 2008 as they were in October 2009?

Rather, I think there's two factors going on here. One is just the cold summer that large portions of the country had. The second is now that Congress is "actively" combating the issue, some people may be rethinking their stance. That is, last year it was fine to believe in global warming since you knew Washington wasn't going to do anything. This year is different.

Posted by: nlcaldwell | October 26, 2009 1:16 PM | Report abuse

FWIW, I clicked "no change" because I have been aware that the earth is warming for almost two decades now ever since I started following this issue. But I imagine I'm also being grouped in with the "never believed this commie scientist stuff and still don't" crowd. (Yes, designing a bulletproof survey is a thankless task!)

The Pew poll results are not that surprising actually. Most people have the statistical sophistication of a six-year-old. The temperature has gone down *slightly* during the cherry-picked window of the past decade, though less than the variability/uncertainty of the actual instruments used. That last part is a little difficult for a science/math-illiterate public to get its heads around.

Couple that with the massive push the "skeptic" (a misnomer since many of them understand the veracity of it but are trying to buy time/squeeze out some more profits) crowd has made at confusing people about the scientific consensus on this, and it's a wonder anyone has kept their head. Also throw in the cognitive dissonance factor - "if I believe the scientists on this, it means I will have to act more responsibly in some areas" and it's a tough one to swallow for the less ethically hardy segment of our population.

And yeah, the recession is probably putting some people in a short-term-survival-first mode. Unfortunately all of this put together means that real action on this issue may not happen for a couple more years. But long term it is unavoidable. The only question is will we wait till too late.

Posted by: B2O2 | October 26, 2009 1:27 PM | Report abuse

What, exactly, is "creepy" about the ad? It seems to be a pretty standard PSA. What was the response to the video--and how did things go "horribly awry" as stated in the column?

Posted by: ChrisDC | October 26, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

Oops, I just noted that the Pew question was worded "there is solid evidence that Earth's average temperature has warmed over the past few decades", and not just "now". While it's sad that only 57% are aware of this undisputable fact - even the "skeptics" don't deny this - that's still probably higher than the number who believe in Darwinian evolution. We're dealing with a pretty pathetic population here, in terms of scientific literacy, remember.

Posted by: B2O2 | October 26, 2009 1:32 PM | Report abuse

Might have something to do with the media presenting global warming as a he said, she said issue. Like, um, you just did. I'm just sayin' ...

Posted by: TheGreenMiles | October 26, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

One should not draw from Pew's poll that there is not wide public support. Pew Environment Group, a policy arm of the Pew Trusts says in other surveys, Americans have consistently supported taking action on global warming. In a question that explains the actual policy considered or passed by congress here's their numbers - and it shows STEADY SUPPORT despite an industry funded campaign to keep the status quo.

June 2008

Favor 82%

Oppose 11%

Undecided 5%

December 2008

Favor 77%

Oppose 11%

Undecided 9%

March 2009

Favor 78%

Oppose 15%

Undecided 7%

June 2009

Favor 78%

Oppose 15%

Undecided 7%

(Pew Environment Group)

Posted by: iallonardo | October 26, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

I agree with ChrisDC. I didn't find the ad creepy at all.

I'm kind of curious also why you prefaced that with a comment about the relative muteness of the climate science community itself. Is that ad directly put out by a scientific organization? In any case I totally agree with the premise. Scientists are in a no-win situation here if they care deeply about the future of humankind: if they sit quietly and simply keep putting out papers, they are at the mercy of the media and advocacy groups to get the message out - and people have become somewhat inured to ads from advocacy groups (as perhaps they should be). But if they start speaking out directly, getting themselves in the news more in a "strident" way, they risk being seen as "losing their objectivity".

In fact I've seen commenters from the "skeptic" crowd here pull exactly that double-standard card on scientists who make emotional public pleas based on what they know. It's a mean world, and industry (together with their unwitting followers) is going to try every manipulative tactic they can to stall action on this.

Posted by: B2O2 | October 26, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Really? No one else finds it highly disturbing how the father tells the little girl that ordinary things like houses are causing an epic disaster?

The British ad was put out by the British Department of Energy and Climate Change, which is a government agency with a scientific mission. The government and broadcasters in Britain have received hundreds of complaints about the ad, due to the perception that it is scaring the heck out of kids. A blogger for Nature magazine called it the "Worst. Climate. Campaign. Ever."

The British Advertising Standards Agency is investigating the matter in the wake of the complaints, according to the BBC:

TheGreenMiles: Yes, this post did present climate change in a he said/she said manner, and you're right to call me out on it. However, I highly doubt this is a problem in this particular case. I do not write climate science stories in a he said/she said framework in order to avoid the classic journalistic trap of false balance. In this case, the subject concerns reaction to a poll, and it is more politically oriented and therefore warrants the approach I took with it.

Also, very few mainstream publications (including the Post) treat climate science in a he said/she said manner anymore, so it's not clear to me that poor coverage led to the poll numbers.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | October 26, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Thermometers are not partisan, but no one uses raw data any more. Post-1999 GISS temperature data is manipulated upwards by 0.7 degrees, which conveniently coincides with the amount of claimed warming.

Posted by: pkhenry | October 26, 2009 4:16 PM | Report abuse

I think you've left out a couple of possible explanations for this dramatic decrease:
Maybe Mr. and Ms J.Q. Public are smarter than you think. Maybe they're tired of being lectured to and lied to by smarmy, snarky self-interested political and scientific elites feeding at the public trough. Maybe they've seen that other scientists who express a view unapproved by the righteous are squelched, ignored, or derided rather than debated. Maybe they can see that the devastation of New Orleans had nothing to do with global warming and everything to do with corrupt politicians and an uncaring administration asleep at the switch. Maybe they can see with their own eyes and feel with their own skins that it's been colder recently not warmer as promised by the scientists. Maybe they wonder why, when temperatures are going up it's due to climate change, but when they're going down, it's only weather. Maybe they're just tired of being duped and taken advantage of and unemployed while Gore and his ilk and the Wall Street bankers get rich while they lose their homes. Maybe they don't see any federally-employed scientists getting laid off. Maybe they just don't trust anybody any more. Maybe they have good reason.

Posted by: FadingFast | October 26, 2009 7:38 PM | Report abuse

Congrats on another balanced and well written article.

Posted by: B2O2
"Most people have the statistical sophistication of a six-year-old."

"That last part is a little difficult for a science/math-illiterate public to get its heads around."

"Also throw in the cognitive dissonance factor - "if I believe the scientists on this, it means I will have to act more responsibly in some areas" and it's a tough one to swallow for the less ethically hardy segment of our population."

"We're dealing with a pretty pathetic population here, in terms of scientific literacy, remember."

Thankfully we have enlightened and gifted people like you to save us from ourselves.
God help us all.

Posted by: Middlebridge | October 26, 2009 8:30 PM | Report abuse

Well, isn't this fortuitous timing:

"U.S. government data show the decade that ends in December will be the warmest in 130 years of record-keeping, and 2005 was the hottest year recorded."

"In a blind test, the AP gave temperature data to four independent statisticians and asked them to look for trends, without telling them what the numbers represented. The experts found no true temperature declines over time.

'If you look at the data and sort of cherry-pick a microtrend within a bigger trend, that technique is particularly suspect,' said John Grego, a professor of statistics at the University of South Carolina."

Posted by: HillcrestDC | October 26, 2009 10:20 PM | Report abuse

It's never as simple as the alarmists try to make it out:
From today's blog by Roger Pielke, Sr., Senior Research Scientist, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES)[an NOAA coperative center], University of Colorado in Boulder, and Professor Emeritus of the Department of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University, regarding the AP article and its conclusions:
"This article, however, (which is not a true independent assessment if the study was completed by NOAA scientists) is not based on the much more robust metric assessment of global warming as diagnosed by upper ocean heat content. Nor does it consider the warm bias issues with respect to surface land temperatures that we have raised in our peer reviewed papers; ...

"As discussed on my weblog and elsewhere (e.g. see and see), the upper ocean heat content trend, as evaluated by its heat anomalies, has been essentially flat since mid 2003 through at least June of this year. Since mid 2003, the heat storage rate, rather then being 0.6 W/m2 in the upper 750m that was found prior to that time (1993-2003), has been essentially zero.

"Nonetheless, the article is correct that the climate system has not cooled even in the last 6 years. Moreover, on the long time period back to 1880, the consensus is that the climate system has warmed on the longest time period. Perhaps the current absence of warming is a shorter term natural feature of the climate system. However, to state that the “[t]he Earth is still warming” is in error. The warming has, at least temporarily halted.

"The article (and apparently the NOAA study itself), therefore, suffers from a significant oversight since it does not comment on an update of the same upper ocean heat content data that Jim Hansen has used to assess global warming."

Posted by: FadingFast | October 27, 2009 1:10 AM | Report abuse

Wow, way to change the rules in the middle of the game! Let's throw out the votes because my view is losing, and yet the "yay global warming is real!!!" crowed isn't doing so hot. Perhaps, for all the effort you put into this, you should look at how the earth's axis plays a factor into temps and ice ages. Just saying that even the History Channel is laughing at GW now.

Posted by: TheMot | October 27, 2009 1:26 AM | Report abuse

I think the reason for the opinion shift lies with the innumerable scare tactics and hyperbole that many (not all, but many) environmentalists and media use. The prevailing meme seems to be, if data supports global warming, it's valid, if it contradicts our theory, just disregard it. I just think folks have stopped listening, and I can't say I blame them.

Interesting that you use the term "global warming" rather than "global climate change" - isn't there a difference? Would your results be different? Amazing how many global warming believers demand precision for others but not themselves.

Posted by: jay4811 | October 27, 2009 7:41 AM | Report abuse

Your poll doesn't accurately portray both perspectives. Most "deniers" such as myself don't disagree with the statement, "the earth is warming" what we disagree with is that:
CO2 or human activities are causing it. It is unnatural. Cutting CO2 will have any impact on it.

The thing I found most interesting about the Pew poll was that respondents with knowledge of the cap and trade approach went 2 to 1 against it.

Posted by: johnnyneuron | October 27, 2009 11:56 AM | Report abuse


Thanks for the comment. You're right, the poll only captures one of the aspects that the Pew poll looked at -- is earth warming regardless of cause -- and not the other aspect (if you think earth is warming, what is due to). Both are valid poll questions, but one could argue the more stunning result of the Pew poll is that fewer people think the Earth is warming at all (regardless of cause), so that's the poll we chose to take here in this post. I'm sure we'll find occasions for similar polls that get at different angles in the future.

Posted by: Dan-CapitalWeatherGang | October 27, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Wow. Great comments! I agree with all of the "deniers" comments. Excellent points!

@pkhenry -
I follow the whole catastrophic, man caused, global warming very closely, and even I wasn't aware of that. Thanks for pointing it out.

You have single handedly done something that Andrew and all of the alarmists have failed to do. You have convinced me that man has played a role in global warming. We have contributed to it via our adjustments to the raw data!

I mistakenly thought that adjustments to the raw data were *supposed* to remove errors introduced via the UHI, urban heat island, effect. UHI makes the temperature reading too high. I *thought* the adjustments were supposed to remove the errors introduced from UHI.

But instead of lowering the raw temperature, their adjustments RAISE raw temperature!

Can someone please explain to me why their adjustments raise the temperature????

Are we to believe that the raw data was too cold?

What would the temperature chart look like if they removed their current "adjustments" and then actually removed the heat introduced from the UHI????

Would there be any temperature rise at all?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | October 27, 2009 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Q, Pkhenry: "Can someone please explain to me why their adjustments raise the temperature????" Mr. Q, if you read the USHCN website that you linked to, you will see that the two major "warming" corrections are due to a) time of observation changing - eg, if the station used to read at noon, but now reads at 8 am, you need to add a positive correction, and b) the SHAP adjustment, to correct for having moved temperature stations on roof-tops and in cities to airports and grassy areas.

Surely, if USHCN were to decide to move its sensors back onto rooftops, and take measurements at noon, you'd want them to apply a cooling correction, so how is this any different?

Posted by: marcusmarcus | October 27, 2009 6:40 PM | Report abuse


Sorry for my delay in replying. I have been extremely busy lately.

If you go back and read the page I linked to, you will see that they applied their "corrections", the SHAP, Station History Adjustment Program, which as you paraphrase "correct[s] for having moved temperature stations on roof-tops and in cities to airports and grassy areas" resulted in an upward adjustment to historical temperatures of approximately 0.25 degree Fahrenheit.

However, the Urban Warming Adjustment results in a downward adjustment of only 0.1 degree Fahrenheit.

How is that possible?

At best, arguing from the AGW perspective, the upward adjustment to historical temperatures should be 100% offset (in the final comparative temperature deviation) by the UHI. But that assumes that all stations that are affected by UHI have been moved to the country. And we know for a fact that they have not.

So since there are some stations that remain under the influence of UHI, shouldn't the combined adjustment from both SHAP and UHI result in a final time series adjustment (year 2000) that is negative?

Shouldn't the downward adjustment necessary to compensate for the urban warming be precisely equal to the upward adjustment necessary for removing a thermometer from the urban warming, i.e. SHAP? And since some thermometers remain in the city, shouldn't the combined final adjustment from those two result in a overall decrease to temperature?

Please explain that to me.

Can you not see that they can and will use the "adjustments" to as they will, to produce the result they want?

How is it possible that in the same temperature record they can simultaneously decrease the temperature by 0.1 degree to compensate for UHI, while increasing the temperature by 0.25 degrees to compensate for moving out of UHI? Shouldn't that have raised an obvious red flag?

And when we are done with that, let's talk about Jones and Quinlan and access to their raw data. How can we trust that their adjustments are justified when we can't access the raw temperature data that they used when they calculated their adjustments?

I sincerely look forward to your reply.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | November 2, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

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