Public Opinion Driven Largely by Media Coverage and Cues from Politicians and Other Authorities. Obama’s Silence Matters “Very Much.”
The Climate Change Threat Index (CCTI) aggregates data from 6 different polling organizations gauging how much people worry about global warming
A must-read study published Monday in the journal Climatic Change debunks some pervasive myths about public opinion and climate change. The lead author, Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, gave me an exclusive interview.
Stanford’s Jon Krosnick told me this paper was an “exciting contribution to the growing literature in this area.” He said, “the results he produced line up very closely with the results of our surveys and with my thinking on the issue, with a couple of caveats,” which I discuss below. He believes, “this paper represents a terrific amount of excellent work and is a great contribution to the literature using a well-established method.”
Here are some of the key findings from “Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S., 2002–2010″:
- “… media coverage of climate change and elite cues from politicians and advocacy groups are among the most prominent drivers of the public perception of the threat associated with climate change”
- “The greater the quantity of media coverage of climate change, the greater the level of public concern.”
- “New York Times mentions of An Inconvenient Truth significantly boosted the public’s perception of the urgency of climate change (P≤.001). The number of mentions in the New York Times is a proxy for the extent of overall media attention to this film.”
- “Articles in popular scientific magazines do reach significance” in terms of influencing public concern, but it is a modest effect
Media coverage of climate change accounts for almost half of the variance in the CCTI, which isn’t terribly surprising when you compare the top chart with a graph of media coverage:
This finding shouldn’t surprise anyone. I just started reading the best-seller Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel prize in economics. He explains:
People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory– and that is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media. Frequently mentioned topics populate the mind even as others slip away from awareness.
Brulle’s study also finds that the public’s relative concern about global warming is affected by “structural economic and political factors play a major role”:
An increase in the unemployment rate significantly decreases the CCTI, and conversely, an increase in GDP significantly increases the CCTI. The number of U.S. war deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan significantly decreases public concern about climate change (P≤.05). These findings suggest that when there is a shock to the economy or intensification in the wars, the general public may reduce their level of concern about climate change.
I interviewed Brulle, whom the NY Times has called “an expert on environmental communications,” about his paper. Here are some of his comments:
- “I think this should close down forever the idea that Al Gore caused the partisan polarization over climate change.”
- “The fact that Obama isn’t talking about the issue or even using the word matters very much.”
- “Popular scientific magazines and the release of major reports (NRC and IPCC) do have a statistically significant effect.”
- “The only messaging campaign that works is one that is consistent. It has to be, especially since it is facing an opposing campaign that is much better funded.“
I have previously pointed out that extensive polling data simply doesn’t support the widely-held myth that Gore polarized the debate (see “Polarization on Climate Jumped in 2009 — Long After Gore’s 2006 Movie“). I’ve asked many leading experts on social science and public opinion — including McCright and Dunlap, authors of “The politicization of climate change and polarization in the American public’s views of global warming, 2001–2010″ — and they all agree the data don’t support this myth. I just asked Krosnick the same question, and he also agrees there is no data to support it.
Indeed, the data actually suggest the reverse, that, if anything, Gore’s movie and his “We Campaign” to bring together well-known figures on both sides of the partisan divide, actually decreased polarization temporarily: