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Exclusive Bombshell: Experts Debunk Polls that Claim Sharp Drop in Number of Americans Who Believe in Global Warming

By Joe Romm on November 15, 2011 at 5:49 pm

"Exclusive Bombshell: Experts Debunk Polls that Claim Sharp Drop in Number of Americans Who Believe in Global Warming"

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National survey of American public opinion on global warming via Jon Krosnick, Stanford University

Politicians and 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 and 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 peopleFrom 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, which you can buy here.  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:

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE OR COMMENT


US Media Coverage

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 (see Silence of the Lambs: Media herd’s coverage of climate change “fell off the map” in 2010):

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% 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 — see Bombshell: Democrats Taking “Green” Positions on Climate Change “Won Much More Often” Than Those Remaining Silent.  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 the Congress’s 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 (see “Can you solve global warming without talking about global warming?).

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.

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26 Responses to Exclusive Bombshell: Experts Debunk Polls that Claim Sharp Drop in Number of Americans Who Believe in Global Warming

  1. M Tucker says:

    Speaking for myself only: I first “heard” about it sometime around 1981 or ’82 from one of my professors. He introduced the subject and introduced the class to Keeling and his, at the time, sole effort to document rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations. I was convinced then and NOTHING I have read or heard since has changed my mind. Not even the near complete lack of popular media attention to the subject that existed at that time. I find Krosnick’s and Boykoff’s work very interesting because I have been wondering for some time how public support for legislation can ebb and flow seemingly without cause. BUT I must say I have always been skeptical that we, the nations of the world, could ever really eliminate CO2 emissions soon enough to avoid catastrophe. When I first saw that TV ad with Pelosi and Gingrich I thought to myself, “I’ll believe it when it actually happens.” I was amused at how uncomfortable Gingrich looked, I wondered who was behind the ad and how did they ever talk Newt into participating but I have always been a pessimist on this issue. Humans will procrastinate on difficult decisions, the more difficult the decision the greater the procrastination. They will wait for the deadline and no clear deadline exists with global climate disruption.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      ‘Humans’ do not count in market fundamentalist capitalist societies. Money and its controllers do, and they make all the decisions. They have decided that nothing will be done, so nothing shall be done. Their political stooges, a rabble of criminal imbeciles, will do as ordered by their owners. These anti-Moriartys are supported by the lower ranks, intellectually and morally, of the public, the Dunning-Kruger fraternity who make up for blatant intellectual and spiritual inadequacy with laughable self-admiration and increasingly vicious belligerence. As long as we allow the worst in society to call all the shots, we are doomed, and it is probably already too late to avert disaster.

  2. Merrelyn Emery says:

    It makes more sense that support has remained reasonably stable and that of course, means that the concerted attack by the denial industry has had less effect than presumed. It was hard to believe that so many could fall for that nonsensical twaddle although it is still true that our education systems have much to answer for.

    But for the latest news on the censorship exercised by the USA media, see the comment by Paul Magnus on today’s News roundup re the Discovery Channel’s decision not to show the final episode of the BBC’s ‘Frozen Planet’ which deals with climate change, ME

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Oh, dear, Merrelyn-surely you jest? No, of course, I know that you do not, because I know that the MSM is entirely populated with craven servants of power, and just such a ludicrous, despicable, act is simply to be expected. As the horror unfolds, this suppression and censorship, and the vilification and intimidation of the truth-tellers will only grow worse, because this is the only way they know how to act. Even more important to them than their own children’s lives is the drive to dominate and ‘call the shots’.

    • joyce says:

      Is there any way to purchase the episode from the BBC for local community viewing?

      • Merrelyn Emery says:

        Joyce, all 7 episodes will be available in USA on DVD – I read that over on the Huff Post this morning, ME

  3. Joe Blocks says:

    This is quite apropos to this story.
    Damn cowards.

  4. prokaryotes says:

    Very creative and fitting book cover!

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    Note that a drop did actually occur, around the time leading up to Copenhagen. The cause of this drop was criminal breakins of CRU and Victoria, leading to the phony “Climategate!” scandal. This non story was lapped up by the media, including the networks and major newspapers.

    Climategate was a resounding success for the oil companies. They moved the public opinion dial down by about 12%, right in the decisive squishy middle range. That was enough to give them cover for a couple of years, while they robbed us of another half a trillion.

    They are sick, but smart. This is war, baby, and we have to stop letting them load us onto the cattle cars.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      And the MSM are the prison kapos.

    • Merrelyn Emery says:

      Yes Mike. Read Sun Tzu and lets work out our strategy the smart way.

      Right at this moment, about 20% of the American public is experiencing a conflict between their perceptions of reality and the message being fed through their TV sets. What would Sun Tzu do? ME

  6. R Shamel says:

    Joe,
    Thanks for this important post.

    As someone who has designed a survey or two, I fully agree: the wording of a question has a huge impact on results, and the Pew survey is better as a measure of media coverage, than of citizen concern.

    Someone wants the public to think that they shouldn’t be concerned with climste change.

  7. Lionel A says:

    Having had the necessity to design questionnaires as part of research projects at university I know loaded questions when I see them and that Pew one beginning, “From what you’ve read and heard…’, would smack me as hard as a ‘Monty Python fish’.

    When I am presented with questionnaires replete with such questions I take great delight in annotating the forms with ‘Loaded Question’ wherever necessary.

    • maggie trias says:

      If you didn’t get your beliefs on global warming “from what you’ve read and heard” then where exactly did you get them? If anything, the wording of the question forces people to think critically rather than give a knee-jerk response.

      Even if you spend every night watching Fox news, if you believe in global warming, chances are you have some other source of information that informs your beliefs, so you’d answer the question according to that source. I’ve read dozens of articles that lamely attempt to dismantle the scientific consensus, but my response to the survey would be based on articles and books and people I agree with, and that wouldn’t be dishonest.

      Also the question does not ask “from what you’ve read and heard in the past year“. Like the first commenter M Tucker said, sometimes all it takes is one poignant article, or a dynamic professor, to cement your beliefs for the rest of your life.

      I can see how, for folks who aren’t in that 15% of climate issue-voters, things like climate-gate would lead them to question the science behind global warming. And so they should. I know it’s not fair, but if the scientists aren’t spotless, then they’re setting themselves up for a media feeding frenzy. (I’m not saying this is as it should be, but scientists and the media have always had a fraught relationship, and we — scientists — are partially to blame).

      • Joe Romm says:

        You miss the point. If you were right, the into clause would still be at best irrelevant. But in fact it changes the question and thus corrupts the answer.

        • maggie trias says:

          I think the problem comes from the fact that the leading/loaded question is asked immediately before (priming) the simple “do you believe in global warming” question. It wasn’t clear to me from your original post that Pew asked both questions. That is more obviously a problem to me. I’m still not seeing the “deep flaw” in the question if it were to stand alone, but it seems I’m in the minority among posters so far, so I won’t push the point.

  8. Raul M. says:

    people notice when they have to get their home or business redone cause of weather.
    People notice the frequency of such events.
    I think, “why is the weather changing so much,” is a reasonable question.
    People have been working with that question.

  9. a face in the cloud says:

    I triple-dog dare these polling companies to survey Texans after that skull-cracking summer we just went through. Here are a couple of suggested polling questions:

    1. Did you avoid fetching the paper from your lawn for fear of suffering a fatal heat stroke?

    2. Could you afford to have the air conditioner and television news on at the same time?

    • Tom Lenz says:

      Here’s another suggestion: Do you notice what is happening to food prices and how much more is it costing you to keep your bellies full?

  10. My sense is that, as Raul M. notes above, Mother Nature’s supply of teachable moments is having its effect, and that more and more people are figuring out what’s going on for themselves. i think it will be fascinating to see if the obama guys figure this out–romney gave them a real opening by pretending not to believe in climate science last month, and if they have the guts i think they could pounce on him for it.

    • Mike Roddy says:

      Bill, you must have a pipeline to the White House. Whey did Obama stop even using the words “global warming” and “climate change” in early 2010?

      As this article points out, it’s not as if wishing for a liveable climate is political poison. Something else is going on in the White House, and it can’t just be the Axelrods telling him to keep a lid on it so as to not offend any voters.

      You are right, calling out Romney for being a denier would be a huge political win. Why isn’t Obama doing it? And why did he couch the pipeline decision as “time to look for another route”? Besides people like you and Joe, are only Markey, Inslee, and Sanders willing to tell the truth?

      I know you’re on delicate ground here, but am genuinely curious- and don’t want to have to accept the deeply cynical default conclusion.

    • Raul M. says:

      Thanks Bill,
      The question seems simple enough to describe what many people face.

    • Tom Lenz says:

      Increasingly hard to absorb food price spikes are now providing teachable moments for every american who does their own shopping. Here is a real opening for Obama assuming he actually cares.

    • Jay Alt says:

      Don’t confuse poll numbers with support. See the public political discussion boards. Plenty of those who vehemently oppose climate action & green power believe the world is warming. And they’re just as sure that it’s all just another natural cycle.

  11. david glover says:

    who stole the emails to create climategate?