Climate Change Understanding Rebounds To 2009 Levels

by Leo Barasi, via Noise of the Crowd

Over a short period at the start of 2010, belief that climate change is real and manmade fell sharply. Since then, it recovered slightly but had remained lower than it was at the end of 2009.

But now three polls have shown that the decline has been fully reversed.

The fall in agreement with climate science was widely covered at the time. A BBC poll in February ‘10 was typical of the shift and reporting:

This fall in agreement with climate science followed ‘Climategate’, the Copenhagen Conference, and a particularly cold winter. Individually, none of these are good explanations for the fall – see here – and I think the most likely explanation is that they together prompted a change in media tone about climate change, which then affected public attitudes.

Since then we’ve seen some evidence that concern about climate change has been increasing again. But these new polls are the first to indicate that level of belief that climate change is real and manmade has returned to where it was at the end of 2009 (note the distinction between ‘concern’ and ‘belief’: both matter, but while it’s symbolically important we shouldn’t get too hung up on ‘belief’).

Each poll asks the question in different ways:

The Guardian/ICM poll found that the proportion that thinks climate change is real and manmade is the same now as it was in December ‘09 (and credit to them for including a link to the data in the article – still unusual).

Although Dec ’09 was after ‘Climategate’ broke, it was before public opinion changed, so this is a good ‘before’ and ‘after’ comparison.

The Guardian’s analysis is that the poll shows that the economic climate has had little impact on public attitudes to global warming. I disagree with this for two reasons.

Firstly, the Guardian didn’t ask the question between Dec ’09 and June ’12, so didn’t pick up concern falling and then coming back up.

Secondly, other polls have showed that the recession took attention away from everything non-economic, including climate change.

So from this poll it looks like we’ve overcome some doubts about climate change. But to say there’s been “a remarkable pattern of stability in acceptance of climate change as established fact” isn’t likely.

The second poll, by the Sunday Times/YouGov, finds a similar pattern. Agreement that climate change is real and manmade has increased over the last two years:

We don’t have a comparable poll from late ’09, so can’t see whether we’re back to the same level as we were then, but the Sunday Times article argued that the numbers agreeing with climate science is in decline.

As Carbon Brief pointed out, this was a very selective and misleading reading of the data. That said, it is true that even with the recent recovery, agreement is still lower than it was in 2008 (and probably lower still than in about 2005).

Finally, Angus Reid have published international data that also suggest UK agreement with climate science is at the same level now as it was in Dec ’09.

This one in fact suggests that the numbers recovered as early as summer ’10. I haven’t seen this replicated anywhere else, and haven’t seen the full polls so am a bit wary. But it does at least support the trend shown in the other polls.

So put together, the conclusion is clear. ‘Climategate’, recent cold winters and the economic climate no longer have any discernible impact on public belief that climate change is real and man-made.

Leo Barasi runs and writes for Noise of the Crowd. This piece was originally published at Noise of the Crowd and was reprinted with permission.

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15 Responses to Climate Change Understanding Rebounds To 2009 Levels

  1. Byron Smith says:

    I want to see a poll of US citizens in a few weeks’ time. That may give a good idea of the effect of weather on these perceptions.

  2. BillD says:

    Perhaps even a few weeks of having climate scientists on national news shows and news articles that point to links between extreme weather and green house gases would make for a significant jump in public understanding and attitudes. Even public debate, news about the North Carolina proposed law about sea level rise etc. would probably help.

    I also agree with Bryon above that attitudes will be changed by the extreme weather and fires. To really have a big shift, however, the drought, heat wave fires need to be linked to climate change in the news media.

  3. “a remarkable pattern of stability in acceptance of climate change as established fact” is exactly what I see, looking at these polls and many others, including ongoing excellent courage of public opinion on climate change here at Climate Progress.

    Yes, there are perturbations, like waves rocking a well-found boat a little. But given the uncertainties in polling, the results are more stable than not.

    The majority of people think cell phones are created by human beings, believe in science, are technically-grounded or receive information socially from others who are technically grounded, and thus also believe in global warming.

    A disturbingly large minority have no idea where cell phones come from (and apparently little curiosity about it), think the Earth is probably a few thousand years old, receive information in paternalistic, entirely socially-driven modes, and thus readily believe the anti-science, anti-climate change propaganda.

  4. fj says:

    good comment

  5. john atcheson says:

    These are from the UK … the US had always lagged behind. It will be interesting to see the effect reality is having on people, now that GW is so obviously happening outside our windows.

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    Obviously, it’s important that this trend continue upward. Deniers of various kinds in the 40% range, in combination with corrupt Congressmen, can block any serious action. If they become a 25% fringe group, let them go ahead and party on with Watts and Monckton. The rest of us may then be able to actually do something.

  7. fj says:

    Kevin Trenberth, July 2, 2012
    What’s Causing Unusually Hot Temperatures in U.S.?

  8. Ken Barrows says:

    Yes, sir. A cold front could have the poll numbers reversing themselves.

  9. prokaryotes says:

    Why not offer all people who deny climate change to leave the planet and then they can do whatever they please with the environment on Planet B?

    Why does it have to be this planet?

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    And the ‘disturbingly large minority’ all have a vote.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    In capitalist societies dollars count, not people. There will be no progress in the more putrid plutocracies, the Anglosphere in particular, until the ruling 1% see it as in their interests to do so, or until there is some sort of insurrection by the public.

  12. You’re right about that. Unfortunately, things have to get worse before they can get better — as happened during the great depression when things got so bad that serious social change became possible. (In Roosevelt’s second term there were only nine, count’em, nine Republcans in the Senate. )

    But in the case of climate change, when things get worse they are unlikely to get better absent changes to the status quo that would make the New Deal look like a minor change in some city ordinance.

  13. Oggy Bleacher says:

    July edition of Popular Science should help inform some people. This is a magazine normally devoted to frivolous gadgets and untested gimmicks and this month is totally devoted to the environment with multiple Climate Change essays. It’s encouraging. I don’t see how the Heartland Institute will spin this to their favor.

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I agree entirely. For humanity to survive the bottle-neck of the next few decades absolutely requires entirely new economic, social and political systems. The thinking of the past has brought us to the cliff’s edge. And, even if, by some miracle, the types of systems and habits of thought required to ensure human posterity are established, we will still have centuries of climate instability and a radically degraded planetary ecosystem to contend with.

  15. SqueakyRat says:

    Given the ever-rising tide of evidence, stability of public opinion is nothing to cheer about.