Polarization on Climate Jumped in 2009 — Long After Gore’s 2006 Movie
Percent of Americans Who Believe the Effects of Global Warming Have Already Begun to Happen, by Political Ideology, from McCright and Dunlap
Conservative columnist Michael Gerson broke sharply from right-wing orthodoxy today when he ended an op-ed on climate change with this bombshell:
The extraction and burning of dead plant matter is not a moral good — or the proper cause for a culture war.
As evidenced by the presidential debates and recent Congressional hearings and speeches, it is in fact an article of faith for much of the national GOP that extracting and burning fossil fuels is a moral good, a matter of national security and economic security. Drill, Baby, Drill!
Imagine Gerson telling the attendees of the Republican National Convention that what they are chanting for isn’t a moral good. He’d be drummed out of the movement.
And in his op-ed, “Climate and the culture war,” Gerson gets that the planet is warming rapidly, creating many dangerous impacts, and the best explanation is human emissions of greenhouse gases.
Unfortunately, accompanying this bombshell is a dud, Gerson’s tired — and erroneous — blame-the-messenger strategy for the culture war:
No cause has been more effectively sabotaged by its political advocates. Climate scientists, in my experience, are generally careful, well-intentioned and confused to be at the center of a global controversy. Investigations of hacked e-mails have revealed evidence of frustration — and perhaps of fudging but not of fraud. It is their political defenders who often discredit their work through hyperbole and arrogance. As environmental writer Michael Shellenberger points out, “The rise in the number of Americans telling pollsters that news of global warming was being exaggerated began virtually concurrently with the release of Al Gore’s movie, ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’”
Obviously, any “fact” offered up by confusionist Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute is likely to be a nonsensical myth — and this one most certainly is. There is no polling data to support that view, as is clear from the chart above from the 2011 journal article, “The polarization of climate change and the polarization and the American publics view of global warming.” I confirmed this with co-author Riley Dunlap when the study came out, which I’ll discuss further in a later post.
And yes, it is laughable that Gerson has the nerve to blame Gore or anybody else for the culture war or the polarization of any issue. Gerson “served as President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 until June 2006, as a senior policy advisor from 2000 through June 2006, and was a member of the White House Iraq Group.” Gore just made a movie and then use the proceeds to try to depolarize the issue whereas Bush/Cheney politicized science, and specifically climate science, more than any administration in history.
As an aside, blaming the messenger is certainly an emerging climate strategy for many in the conservative movement since it lets them off the hook. You see, folks, it isn’t the disinformation campaign — which Gerson never mentions — or the power of the fossil fuel lobby — which Gerson never mentions. It’s those darn “defenders” of scientists who are to blame. I wonder who scientists could possibly need defending from? But I digress.
Let me go back to the polling data because it is certainly a widely held myth that Gore is responsible for polarizing this debate. That is a myth conservatives love to tout, of course, and it is one the Breakthrough bunch has repeated again and again. But it just isn’t true.
As an important aside, it is pretty well-known from social science research that people take crucial cues (as to their beliefs) from elites and that Republicans tend to take their cues from Republican elites and Democrats tend to take their cue from Democratic elites. So it would be hard for Gore by himself to polarize the debate in any case. Indeed, Gerson himself notes that:
In 2005, then-Gov. Mitt Romney joined a regional agreement to limit carbon emissions. In 2007, Gingrich publicly endorsed a cap-and-trade system for carbon.
Many, many Republicans embraced cap-and-trade around that time and didn’t flip flop on climate until 2009, suggesting again it was something other than Gore’s advocacy to blaim (see Tim Pawlenty: “Every one of us” running for president has flip-flopped on climate change). Let’s remember that the GOP presidential nominee ran on a platform of climate action and cap-and-trade — even his conservative VP, Sarah Palin, endorsed it. That’s a key reason again that you see in the top chart that the liberal-conservative polarization did not accelerate until 2009, when a certain person got elected with overwhelming majorities and the prospect of an actual climate bill became quite real.
And for those sticklers who point out that Gerson was referring to a different polling question, here’s Gallup’s polling on the exaggeration question:
Note that for most of the period through 2009 (other than the election year of 2004) an overwhelming majority of people believe that either the news gets it right or underestimates the seriousness of global warming. Go figure!
Note also that this poll has a margin of sampling error of +/- 3%. So we see it is false to claim, “The rise in the number of Americans telling pollsters that news of global warming was being exaggerated began virtually concurrently with the release of Al Gore’s movie, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ ” — which was released in May 2006! Indeed what’s remarkable is how little these numbers change at all within the margin of error from 1998 through 2008 (other than the election year of 2004).
And Gallup breaks these down by party ID:
Now this is a little interesting in that you see that the view of independents and Democrats hardly budged through 2008 on this question. Even for Republicans, their 2007 and 2008 percentages were below that of 2004, and once you throw in the margin of error, any claim that Gore’s movie polarized this issue because untenable.
Aside: There is another complicating factor for interpreting this polling. From 2006 to 2010, “there has been an actual decrease in the number of straight Republican identifiers among registered voters (down 2 points) which has produced a concomitant increase in the number of Republican-leaning independents over the 2006-2010 time period,” as polling expert Ruy Teixera explained in November 2010. What that means is that Republicans became more conservative (as they shed more independent-leaning R’s) and independents also became more conservative (as they added former Republicans). So that accounts for some of the rise in the percentages in 2008 and 2009 for Republicans and independents. I confirmed the plausibility of this view with Teixera last year. That’s one reason I prefer to look at the conservative-liberal split (the top chart) than the Democrat-Republican split.
And also note that this is one of those somewhat flawed questions that ask people to think about what is said in the news — rather than simply asking people whether they think the seriousness of global warming has been exaggerated (see “Experts Debunk Polls that Claim Sharp Drop in Number of Americans Who Believe in Global Warming“). If we look at the polling of Stanford’s Jon Krosnick, it’s just hard to see any major trend concerning public belief about global warming that Al Gore can be blamed for:
National survey of American public opinion on global warming via Jon Krosnick, Stanford University
What makes the charge against Gore so pernicious is that the former vice president worked hard to keep the issue bipartisan after his movie came out, something that the social science community acknowledges. You may recall the error-riddled, self-contradictory, and demonstrable false report, Climate Shift that Prof. Matthew Nisbet of American University wrote last year. Nisbet, funded by the same folks who fund the Breakthrough bunch, tried to push the exact same attack on Gore — but two of his original expert reviewers would have none of it:
- Nisbet in Exec Sum: “Gore has consistently sought to mobilize progressives politically, pairing his messages about climate science with attacks on Republicans.”
- Max Boykoff: “I don’t agree with that statement.”
- Robert Brulle: “His claim about the role of Vice President Gore has no valid empirical data behind it.”
This was a classic counterfactual. Gore reached out to Republicans in his famous WE campaign — I’m sure everyone now remembers Gingrich and Pelosi on the couch. And there was also Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson.
“The discussion of Al Gore ignores basic scholarship on the climate denial efforts, and supports an ideological position that is not grounded in an empirical analysis,” as Robert Brulle, a leading expert on climate communications, put it to me.
The bottom line is that there just is no polling data or social science scholarship to support the charge that Al Gore’s movie began the polarization of the climate debate — and there is much polling data and scholarship to the contrary.
The true acceleration of the polarization occurred around 2009 — and primarily involved a shift by Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, most likely responding to elite cues by politicians and of course the right wing media that they tend to read online, watch on TV, and listen to on the radio.
I’ll end where Gerson began:
The attempt by Newt Gingrich to cover his tracks on climate change has been one of the shabbier little episodes of the 2012 presidential campaign. His forthcoming sequel to “A Contract with the Earth” was to feature a chapter by Katharine Hayhoe, a young professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas Tech University. Hayhoe is a scientist, an evangelical Christian and a moderate voice warning of climate disruption.
Then conservative media got wind. Rush Limbaugh dismissed Hayhoe as a “climate babe.” An Iowa voter pressed Gingrich on the topic. “That’s not going to be in the book,” he responded. “We told them to kill it.” Hayhoe learned this news just as she was passing under the bus.
So the right-wing media leaped on Gingrich, who once embraced climate action and cap-and-trade, because he was going to include a chapter by a scientist who is an evangelical Christian and a moderate voice on this issue. It really isn’t that hard to figure out who is responsible for polarizing this issue.
UPDATE: I ran this piece by McCright and Dunlap and Brulle, and they are all supportive of the analysis and conclusion. Brulle sent me a fascinating chart of polling data I’ll use in a subsequent post.