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Large majority of Americans continue to believe global warming is real and trust scientists

By Joe Romm  

"Large majority of Americans continue to believe global warming is real and trust scientists"

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After analyzing all of the data from 2009 survey, Krosnick and his Stanford colleagues concluded that the 5-point drop in the percentage of Americans who believe in the global warming was largely made up of people who both mistrust scientists and think that the Earth is cooling down naturally.

We’re subjected to many dubious claims about science messaging — stuff like, “the world’s scientists are struggling with the unsettling feeling that the more they talk about climate change, the less progress they make.”

Scientists may have that feeling, but it has little basis in fact.  You can’t discuss this subject in a serious fashion without looking at key factors like the anti-science disinformation campaign, the he-said/she-said coverage by the media, the decision by many enviros to downplay talk of global warming, and, in the U.S., the relatively coolish temperatures of the past two years (see “The disinformers are winning, but mostly with the GOP“).

So I wanted to bring you further analysis by someone who has done actual detailed polling and research on the subject, Stanford communications expert Jon Krosnick.  He has released an analysis of his latest survey of U.S. public opinion on global warming.  Below is a synopsis, plus a video interview of Krosnick (with links to the analysis and working papers).  His results indicate:

  • 75% of Americans believe that the world’s temperatures have probably been going up;
  • Public confidence in what scientists say about the environment has remained constant over the last few years with 70% of respondents trusting scientists a lot or moderate amount;
  • More people believe that weather has been relatively cooler and more stable in 2008 and 2009 compared to previous years; and
  • Climate skeptics are having some affect on the public’s belief that there is agreement among scientists that global warming is happening. In-depth analysis of [impact of] climate skeptics here “¦

In late 2009, the credibility of climate scientists worldwide came into question when controversial emails from prominent researchers were leaked to the news media. That was followed a few weeks later by revelations of an erroneous forecast in a report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggesting that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035. In this video, Stanford Professor Jon Krosnick explains what the American public really thinks about climate scientists based on a series of national surveys he conducted on behalf of the Woods Institute for the Environment.

Despite recent news reports questioning the credibility of climate science, the vast majority of Americans continue to trust the scientists who say that global warming is real, according to a new Stanford University study.

Those results come from a recent public opinion survey funded by Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment and the Associated Press (AP). According to Krosnick, the recent 5-point drop in the percentage of people who believe in global warming was entirely due to a shift in opinions among the minority of Americans who do not trust climate scientists. A majority of these individuals believe that the Earth has been warming over the long haul, but this majority has been shrinking, he said.

Krosnick, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute, has been conducting national surveys on global warming for more than a decade, partnering with major media outlets, including the AP, ABC News, Time, New Scientist, and the Washington Post. To get a sense of how public opinion changes over time, many of the surveys have posed the same questions year after year. He presented his findings on March 12 at a climate briefing hosted by the American Meteorological Society in Washington, D.C.

“The 2009 Woods Institute-AP survey shows that Americans can be divided into two groups – 70 percent who trust scientists, and 30 percent who do not,” Krosnick said. “Our latest study illuminates how these two groups of people think differently about this issue.”

Trust in Scientists

For the 2009 survey, pollsters conducted telephone interviews with 1,055 adults from Nov. 17 to Nov. 29. During that time period, controversial emails from prominent climate scientists were leaked to the news media. The emails, which were hacked from a server at a British university, included vitriolic attacks on critics of global warming and raised questions about scientists manipulating climate data. The controversy, called “climategate” by global warming skeptics, soon made headlines around the world. But according to Krosnick, the effect on public opinion was minimal.

“Our research shows that the negative publicity surrounding climategate had no meaningful impact on public confidence in climate scientists,” he said. “In 2008, 68 percent of our respondents said they trusted scientists completely, a lot or a moderate amount. In the 2009 survey, the number was 70 percent  up two points.”

Climategate was followed by more negative headlines in December 2009. This time, the focus was on a 2007 forecast by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggesting that melting glaciers in the Himalayas were likely to disappear by 2035. That forecast turned out to be erroneous, which caused even greater turmoil among climate researchers. On March 10, 2010, in reaction to the growing controversy, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the creation of an independent panel to review the work of the IPCC.

“The scientific community is overreacting to these events,” Krosnick said. “In theory, it’s possible that public regard for climate scientists has dropped sharply since our 2009 survey. But based on my 30 years of experience in this field, that’s very unlikely, because American public opinion, even on a highly publicized and frequently debated issue, changes very, very slowly. So in a two-month period, it’s unlikely that there would be a dramatic change. My guess is that relatively few Americans are aware of the media controversy or are paying attention to it, and even fewer are influenced by it.”

Changing weather

One factor that can influence opinion is the perception of local changes in the weather, Krosnick said. Using data going back to 1880, NASA scientists report that globally, 2000 to 2009 included nine of the 10 hottest years on record. However, below average temperatures in parts of the United States over the last two years have led some Americans to wonder if the Earth is actually getting cooler, Krosnick noted.

As a result, when the November 2009 survey asked if average world temperatures were higher or lower in the last three years than in
previous years, only 43 percent said higher, compared to 58 percent in the 2008 survey, which was conducted in the summertime.

Climate stability can also play a role in people’s perception of global warming, he said. Since 2006, Krosnick and his colleagues have included the following question in their surveys: “Would you say that weather patterns in the county where you live have been more stable in the past three years than before that, more unstable or about the same?” In 2006, a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, 52 percent of respondents said that local weather patterns had become more unstable. By 2008, that figure had dropped to 43 percent.

“Katrina is a distant memory,” Krosnick said. “2008 wasn’t a year of giant-sized storms, but it was a year of lower temperatures. 2009 also saw the fewest storms since 1997. For some people – especially those who say that they have little or no trust in climate scientists – that’s real information. They see that the weather appears to be more stable and that temperatures are cooler, and their reaction is, ‘it stopped getting hotter, so maybe global warming isn’t happening after all.’”

Climate skeptics

After analyzing all of the data from 2009 survey, Krosnick and his Stanford colleagues concluded that the 5-point drop in the percentage of Americans who believe in the global warming was largely made up of people who both mistrust scientists and think that the Earth is cooling down naturally.

Where do those opinions come from? According to Krosnick, they are the result of successful efforts by climate skeptics to convince the public that there is disagreement among scientists about global warming. “This is where climate skeptics have been making some headway, because in reality, there is broad consensus among scientists that global warming is real and poses a serious threat for future generations,” he said. “But in our last survey, there was an 8 point decline in the percentage of people who think that most scientists agree on global warming, from 39 percent in 2008 to 31 percent in 2009. So the accumulation of skeptical evidence is finally adding up to success.”

Majority opinion

When respondents were asked to give their personal opinion in 2009, 75 percent said that global warming probably has been happening, and only 22 percent said probably not. “It’s really important to recognize that 75 percent is a huge majority of Americans, and 5 percent of Americans shifting is a pretty small movement,” Krosnick said.

According to Krosnick, it is important to take a long-term perspective on this and other global warming surveys. “Skeptics might look at this 5 percent dip in public opinion and conclude that Americans are finally waking up, that the critics are getting traction and that this is just the beginning of a downward trend – that 75 percent will soon drop to 50 percent, then 25 percent and eventually people will look back and say that climate change was a hoax, ” he said. “But the reality is, if the natural scientists are correct in saying that the cooler weather is just a temporary aberration, and that average temperatures will continue to rise from year to year, then this little downward trend will go away. My guess is that if warming and unstable weather increases, the public opinion numbers will bounce back up again.”

I suspect it will, too, although if the media coverage continues to feature even the most discredited disinformers, then large segments of the public will remain confused for a long time (see Boykoff on “Exaggerating Denialism: Media Representations of Outlier Views on Climate Change”).

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12 Responses to Large majority of Americans continue to believe global warming is real and trust scientists

  1. MarkB says:

    To nitpick a little, the statement (requiring a yes or no) “average temperatures in the world have been higher in the last three years” is fairly ambiguous. Higher than what? Using GISS, 2007 and 2009 are statistically tied for 2nd. 2008 (la Nina year) was top 10, but not top 5. What years is it supposed to be compared to?

  2. mike roddy says:

    It’s good to see a thorough and professional study done, but it’s hard to determine what the baseline is. It’s possible that all of the scientific evidence confirming AGW that has been pouring in lately could mean more to the public than the cold winter back east. The deniers’ PR campaign may have been more effective than this study would indicate.

    The other issue is that the people no longer run this country. Public opinion polls support a better health care system and getting troops out of the Middle East, too. The minority who disbelieve climate science are all that is needed to provide political cover to the corporate interests who run this country. Maybe all they want is for their stooges in Congress and the media to not get too embarrassed about their lies.

    It’s also possible that doubts have been planted in the minds of those who take the trouble to observe the changes all around them, and to read qualified opinion on the subject. The point is that this is no time to be complacent. Aggressive counterattacks are still called for.

  3. Keith says:

    during my lunch-time jog, I was stunned by an observation: there are leaf buds on the trees and it’s only 3/17.
    … did I mention I’m in Albany, NY.
    Thus, stunning!!
    mother nature doesn’t give a care for our corporate interests.

  4. PSU Grad says:

    I found portion instructive:

    “The 2009 Woods Institute-AP survey shows that Americans can be divided into two groups – 70 percent who trust scientists, and 30 percent who do not,”

    During George W. Bush’s presidency, no matter how bad things got, his approval numbers never dipped below about 26-27 percent. In other polls I’ve seen, those who advocate a far right point of view usually bottoms out at about 30%. I suspect these are the same people (not literally, but as a polled group).

    These are the people who can be convinced of nothing outside their narrow world view. No matter what you do, you’ll never reach them.

  5. ChrisD says:

    @PSU Grad:

    During George W. Bush’s presidency, no matter how bad things got, his approval numbers never dipped below about 26-27 percent. In other polls I’ve seen, those who advocate a far right point of view usually bottoms out at about 30%.

    Now, that is an excellent point. On just about any question, there is a percentage of uber-conservatives that just can’t be moved, no matter how stark is the evidence, and this 30% number for scientist-distrusters seems to be right in the ballpark. So does the 25% who don’t think that the temps have been rising.

    Of course, those are the same folks who will cheerfully assume that this polling is rigged…

  6. Douglas says:

    “However, below average temperatures in parts of the United States over the last two years have led some Americans to wonder if the Earth is actually getting cooler, Krosnick noted.”

    I think this is key and often gets overlook for some strange reason. A lot of people seem to think that global warming means a continuous, year-to-year uptick in temps, and when that doesn’t occur they begin to doubt.

    A couple years of above average temps in the US, and I bet the first graph re public perception goes back to around 85%. The deniers have played less of a role in the current drop then some believe.

    I don’t think scientists need to radically change their messaging, they just need to be a bit more involved in the public discourse. And use multiple approaches…there is no *one* correct approach. I like both this site and RealClimate for instance, although they have a different “flavor”(this being a bit more on policy/advocacy side and RC on the science side).

  7. fj2 says:

    http://globalwarming.house.gov/pubs?id=0016

    Select Committee Hearing,
    “Clearing the Smoke: Understanding the Impacts of Black Carbon Pollution
    Tuesday, March 16, 2010
    1310 Longworth House Office Building, Washington DCo
    Chairman: Rep Edward J. Markey (D-MA)

    Testimony:
    Tami Bond, Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    Veerabhadran Ramanathan, Professor, Scripps Institution Of Oceanography – Testimony Part I|Testimony Part 2
    Drew Shindel, Senior Scientist, NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies
    Conrad Schneider, Advocacy Director, Clean Air Task Force

  8. Steve O says:

    I’d be interested in seeing the results if a 4- or 6-point scale were used. One of the problems with using an odd-numbered scale is that it provides a cop-out response in the middle. With an even-numbered scale, respondents are forced to choose around a neutral middle.

    Note that if this poll were given to monkeys, 60% would have indicated that they trust scientists at least a moderate amount. So at least the public is smarter than monkeys, but not by as much as you think.

    What if we try this next time?
    On climate science. . .
    1 – I trust the scientists completely
    2 – I trust the scientists a lot
    3 – I trust the scientists a little more than I distrust them
    4 – I distrust the scientists a little more than I trust them
    5 – I distrust the scientists a lot
    6 – I distrust the scientists completely

  9. paulm says:

    Errr… I think the people of Miami. He still has got his facts straight. I think we are on for 3ft what ever measures are taken. And they should be telling people this.

    http://www.nbcmiami.com/news/local-beat/Rising-seas-keeping-pace-with-rising-public-skepticism-over-climate-change-88008527.html
    New scientific data says the sea is rising faster than anyone thought and under worst-case scenarios, much of Miami and South Florida could be under water by the end of the century, unless drastic measures are taken soon.

  10. Chris Winter says:

    I’m not sure this relates to the topic, but it’s a good sign. Janet Raloff writes in Science News:

    “Over the past two decades, science literacy—an estimate of the share of adults who can follow complex science issues and maybe even render an informed opinion on them—has nearly tripled in the United States. To a meager 28 percent.”

    – Janet Raloff, “Don’t know much about…”, Science News, 13 March 2010, p. 13

  11. substanti8 says:

    A major problem with democracy is that people on the left side of the bell curve get equal votes.

  12. John Mashey says:

    Krosnick did a two-hour lecture for us last night.

    If you ever have a chance to hear him talk live, do so.
    Among other things, he gave exampeles of poorly-framed poll questions and why they happen to be that way. He’s also a lively speaker.