Exclusive: “Exciting” Public Opinion Study Debunks Claim Al Gore Polarized the Climate Debate and Many Other Myths

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:

US 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:

Percent of Americans Who Believe the Effects of Global Warming Have Already Begun to Happen, by Political Ideology, from McCright and Dunlap

This new study confirms that view — that Gore’s movie and his efforts helped drive up public awareness and concern about this issue across the  ideological spectrum.

Because this study should inform climate communications efforts going forward, let me review the key findings:

Media coverage is crucial:

First, media coverage of climate change directly affects the level of public concern. The greater the quantity of media coverage of climate change, the greater the level of public concern. This is in line with the Quantity of Coverage theory of media effects, and existing individual level research on the impact of television coverage on climate-change concern. The importance the media assigns to coverage of climate change translates into the importance the public attaches to this issue. Second, in a society with a limited amount of “issue space,” unemployment, economic prosperity, and involvement in wars all compete with climate change for public concern.

So are “elite cues”:

The most important factor in influencing public opinion on climate change, however, is the elite partisan battle over the issue. The two strongest effects on public concern are Democratic Congressional action statements and Republican roll-call votes, which increase and diminish public concern, respectively. This finding points to the effect of polarized political elite that is emitting contrary cues, with resulting (seemingly) contrary levels of public concern. As noted by McDonald (2009: 52) “When elites have consensus, the public follows suit and the issue becomes mainstreamed. When elites disagree, polarization occurs, and citizens rely on other indicators, such as political party or source credibility, to make up their minds.” This appears to be the case with climate change.

The study has other interesting findings.  First, extreme weather — or at least the metrics the study used to stand in for extreme weather — did not have a statistically significant impact on public opinion:

Model 1a tests the influence of high temperature, precipitation and drought. Model 1b uses the Climatic Extremes Index developed by NOAA, which includes six indicators of weather extremes. Two separate models were run because the Climate Extreme Index is a composite index that includes the three variables in model 1a. Neither specification was statistically significant, suggesting that weather events, in themselves, do not influence the overall level of public concern regarding climate change. That is not to say that individuals who experience disruptive weather events do not change their opinions regarding the threat posed by climate change. However, the extent of these changes has not reached a level where these shifts can be measured in nationwide polls at the aggregate level. This result may change over time if weather disruptions attributable to climate change increase.

I think these results make sense, but I’m not sure those are the best metrics.  Also, the study unfortunately ends in 2010, and both 2010 and 2011 were years of record-smashing extreme weather, particularly for this country.  I tend to think it is the uber-extreme events that are most likely  to influence public opinion — the monster events that scientists projected would become more frequent and extreme — super heat waves, droughts, wildfires, superstorms and floods.

But of course the media would need to explain to the public  the connection between the extreme events and global warming, which they aren’t doing a good job of.  Indeed, one key point of the study is that the media mediates a lot of the public’s exposure to and understanding of the climate issue.  Were the media to cover the link more, it might well move the needle.

Model 2 tests the hypothesis that the availability of scientific information will lead to an increase in public concern. The model controls for the number of climate change articles in Science, popular scientific magazines, and the release of major climate change scientific assessment reports. We found that the number of articles in the journal Science does not have a significant direct effect on public concern. Because Science articles are generally not read by the general public, it is not surprising that they have no discernible direct effect. The release of major scientific assessment reports is marginally statistically significant (P≤.1). The release of these reports produces an increase in the CCTI of 2.5 points. Articles in popular scientific magazines do reach significance (P≤.01). The publication of an individual magazine article in this forum increases the CCTI by .2 points.

I have two issues here.  First, I’d like to have seen a metric of mainstream media coverage of science, rather than just science magazines.

Second, relatedly, I’d argue that An Inconvenient Truth is mostly a science documentary, since the movie itself has virtually no politics or policy recommendations in it.  Thus I suspect mentions of the movie in the NYT correlate with science communications with the public.  One would have to go back and check that the NYT (and other MSM) articles on the movie focused on the science.  Also the IPCC Fourth Assessment happened to be released in 4 parts in the year following the movie and 2007 was the peak year for public concern.  It was probably the peak year for coverage of climate science.

I put this question to Krosnick and he wrote:

You are putting your finger on an important issue in this sort of study – there are always judgment calls to be made, and you’re right that the Gore movie needs to be categorized somehow.  I guess the operative question is whether what matters is the substance of what was said (results of scientific studies) or who said it (a politician, not a scientist).  That’s testable empirically, of course.

Here are more of Krosnick’s comments:

Robert’s paper is an exciting contribution to the growing literature in this area.

He used a well-established method for conglomerating the results of different surveys.

And 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.

First, his pattern of increase and decrease in public thinking (I’m going to use the ambiguous  word “thinking” for the moment) with a peak in 2007 matches our data:

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

We see a decline from 84% in 2007 to 75% in 2009, 9 percentage points.

He sees a decline from about 52 or so in 2007 to maybe about 46 in 2009 (averaging his numbers across each year), a 6 percentage point drop.

And he finds the same stability from 2009 to 2010 that we see in our data.

Yes, his text takes Figure 1 quite literally and talks about a larger drop.  But the little ups and downs in the curve are not statistically significant, so I would be cautious about interpreting them.

Second, his conclusions that media coverage and elite cues match well with what we’ve seen in our own research. In fact, if the agenda-setting hypothesis hadn’t been supported here, it would have been a big surprise, in light of so much evidence published to support it regarding other issues.

His conclusions that other factors, such as extreme weather events, are not influential, comports well with my thinking on the issue, though I have no direct evidence to support that intuition.

My only hesitation about the paper is one that I’m sure Robert shares as well – using the Stimson method leads to the construction of what Robert and colleagues call their “”threat index”.  The paper does not report the exact
wordings of the questions that compose the index, and it won’t surprise you to know that the wordings would matter to me.  The wordings are in the supplementary materials.  They ask:

  • How much the respondent worried about GW
  • How likely the R is to be personally affected by GW
  • Whether GW is having a serious impact now
  • Importance of GW to the respondent personally
  • Seriousness of GW as a problem for the US
  • Seriousness of GW as a problem (not specifying for whom)
  • Whether a 5 degree temperature rise in 75 years would be bad
  • Whether news coverage exaggerates the seriousness of GW
  • How soon the effects of GW will appear
  • How threatening GW is to the vital interests of the US

As you can see, this index mixes lots of different types of questions together.  Other questions that could have been included (e.g., seriousness of GW as a problem for the world) are omitted, and one could make arguments about whether some of these questions belong in an index with the others (e.g., given a great deal of work suggesting that people think differently about their own personal risks than they think about national or global risks, does it make sense to blend questions about personal impact with questions about national impact into an index?).

When different questions get mixed into an index like this, I’m not sure (1) what the index is really measuring, and (2) how robust the results would be to changes in which question are used.

Regardless, this paper represents a terrific amount of excellent work and is a great contribution to the literature using a well-established method.

Kudos to Brulle and his coauthors for this important paper.

UPDATE:  Brulle responds to Krosnick:

I do agree with Krosnick that the aggregation of questions needs work.  This is just the first time out using Stimson’s method to aggregate concern about climate change from a number of polls, and so we need to do further work on that area.  However, the questions in the index do load very well, and the index accounts for about 80% of the variance in the responses to the questions.

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22 Responses to Exclusive: “Exciting” Public Opinion Study Debunks Claim Al Gore Polarized the Climate Debate and Many Other Myths

  1. Alex says:

    What Gore did was piss the deniers/confusion-ists off and they claim it polarized the “debate.” Of course, there is no climate debate. There is a manufactured political debate.

  2. fj says:

    Yes, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” by Daniel Kahneman is a wonderful book which presents ideas that can advance us tremendously.

    The concept of the deceptive human belief in causality seems very important yet; it seems he gives too much emphasis on the solid reality of chaos where both chaos and causality (or more accurately, belief in causality and or chaos) might be better perceived as cognitive tools much like space and time or infinity and zero.

    Then, again I’m an optimist.

  3. M Tucker says:

    Gore didn’t cause partisan polarization he was a target of partisan polarization. The delayer/denier/disinformers targeted him just as they did with the hockey stick graph, and with personal attacks on Dr Hansen and Dr Mann.

    Consistent messaging is completely lacking and that is magnified by President Obama’s self-censorship. In spite of any and all surveys to the contrary President Obama has decided that speaking of solving global climate disruption is a campaign killer, attacking Republican anti-science nonsense is a campaign killer, and calling on congress to pass a climate bill is a campaign killer, so we have silence.

    Will this silence make it harder for President Obama to reignite the discussion in 2013 if he is successful with his reelection?

  4. fj says:

    This is the powerful political and scientific reality: That our leaders must move us at wartime speed to stop accelerating climate change.

  5. Wes Rolley says:

    I am not sure what the data about the role of our political “elites” tells us. Is it that they really have that much clout? Or is it the fact that the media, who does have measurable clout, fails again and again to challenge the “elite” on any aspect of this issue? I suspect that the latter is more to the case when we talk about our Congress at the lowest level of public esteem in it’s history.

    In one interesting case regarding climate, energy and the media, I can turn to ABC’s Diane Sawyer. While ABC has basically been one of the better MSM sources for linking climate to extreme weather events, I saw Sawyer do a story on the Keystone Pipeline in which she allowed extremely inflated jobs numbers to be used, but not challenged. In fact, she repeated them.

    We must all continue to pressure the media to do a better job, or pressuring the advertisers to ensure that they do.

  6. Jeff H says:

    The Point

    Bravo to this study, and to Dr. Brulle, and to Joe/CP for covering it, of course.

    I love this statement:

    “The fact that Obama isn’t talking about the issue or even using the word matters very much.”

    This is true, of course, and indeed is an understatement.

    That said, my point here is not to get into a detailed discussion of “how much” it matters, and how and why, but instead to say this (to Joe/CP and to leaders in the movement) …

    What are we actually going to DO about that? In other words, what are WE going to DO to demand that President Obama PUT climate change into a top-priority position in his public dialogue — and to prompt him to do so?

    A fairly famous 19th Century philosopher (I won’t mention his name here, because he’s controversial on other matters, and that will just cause some people to take us on a tangent) said this: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Applying that same sort of thinking here, now that we have at least some clear clues as to why climate change is not firmly IN the public’s high list of concerns, and not firmly IN the present political/media dialogue, the question becomes, How are we going to change that? Among other things, how are we going to GET President Obama to DO his part, loudly and clearly?

    May I ask (again), can/will CP take up that concrete topic and concrete question?

    Dr. Brulle has pointed out this part of the problem (Obama’s lack of communication, etc.) quite clearly, more than once, and Joe/CP has featured the point and surely must understand it. So again, let’s discuss what we can and should DO about that, to change that.

    I know it’s an “inconvenient question” to some: How do we CHANGE Obama’s approach, effectively and successfully (but without making things too “hard” on him or telling him that our voting support will depend on him adopting and demonstrating the necessary changes in approach)? Quite a few people don’t want to ask that question, or even see it asked, or face the possibility (indeed likelihood) that it may be necessary to make demands on Obama that are real and that he must meet in order to deserve our support. Yet it’s a topic that should be squarely discussed and addressed. Today’s post (and others in the past), including at least two that have included clear comments from Dr. Brulle, have set the stage for the question, and it’s a necessary question. What to DO?



  7. Brooks Bridges says:

    An excellent post which basically says that “all” we have to do is get the MSM and President Obama talking about AGW frequently. Or just one, assuming that will get the other talking.

    So the real need is to come up with methods of accomplishing this.

    Wouldn’t 1 million people showing up in DC even just one day help this? Again, how? who could get this moving? Earth Day is coming and planning big crowds but climate change was kind of buried in their web site.

    And/or, copying the women’s suffragette movement in the 1912 to 1918 period, a band of people showing up every single day in front of White House with signs? They made it a specific goal to generate publicity. There really weren’t that many of them but they were passionate and made major personal sacrifices – gave up a normal life for years.

    How can the AGW problem be generating so little passion?

    For instance: The recent Breast Cancer furor generated huge press. Over Two million signatures to recall Wisconsin Gov Walker. In contrast, the most recent XL pipeline protest got 12,000 people to turn out.


    My email is my name reversed, gmail

  8. Brooks Bridges says:

    email is last.first. Realized might be interpreted as just the letters.

  9. Raul M. says:

    in areas subject to power outages a bank could make for their ATM machine to be solar powered with satellite comm.
    An advantage is that stores doing business without power could still have customers with money.
    We know the credit cards and debit cards have advantages but having a central point where the cards would work even so would be a big help when the power goes out.

  10. Mimikatz says:

    I have thought for years that this was true–people weren’t more concerned about global warming because the gov’t didn’t project a sense of urgency. After all, if it was really that bad, they would be jumping up and down warnng us of calamities to come just as they have been with the “debt and entitlement crisis” , a problem with about the same time horizon for the average person.

    Of course, there are rich people with a vested interest in having our debt issues solved by cutting everyone’s Social Security and Medicare rather than raising taxes on the rich, and they promote the “debt crisis” as an issue and try to rile people up. On the GW side much of the corporate money is playing down GW to perpetuate their profit margins for as long as possible, and GW denial fits as comfortably within right-wing ideology as does worrying about “entitlements.”

    It is instructive to watch how the national debt is losing saliency as Obama stresses tax and economic fairness and people realize that most of the purported solutions to the debt issue are a con. He could do the same for GW if he would be straightforward about the challenges we face and the consequences of staying on the current trajectory.

    An additional commonality is the tendency to believe that the future will just be a continuation (if an exacerbation) of the present. I think that au contraire the 2020s will be a very, very different place politically and economically. There will be reductions in
    energy use and consumption, and I fully believe that by 2030 leaving, and leaving as much as possible for
    future generations will become popular,ar with those of us now entering our 70s, which will help cut SS and Medicare.

  11. Mimikatz says:

    As the presidential race heats up one way is to go to political events, rallies, debates etc and try to raise the issue, for example with signs, or with questions if one can get in. Also raise e issue with friends and associates by word of mouth and social media. What is one candidate or the other going to mean for the issue going forward?

    After all, just look at how Occupy changed the conversation from the “debt crisis” to unemployment, income inequality and tax unfairness.

    The same 1%ers are planning to ride out the GW catastrophe with the money they plan on making in the next few years of business as usual. The same generations (X and Millenials and the terror generation born after 2001) are losing out over GW as well as the growing inequality of incomes and rewards.

  12. Mimikatz says:

    The one climate event that can be pretty clearly linked to GW is heat waves, also drought. And water concomitant shortages. I think this summer and the next few may present those phenomena with enough force to start really making the connection. As Ed Kilgore wrote recently, do people in the Southeast realize that in a decade or 2 watching football outside, to say nothing of playing may be a health hazard in
    August-September? Do the folks in Pheonix realize how bad it will get?

  13. fj says:

    Currently, it’s perceived that the political reality is to simply mention climate change and not much more, which is totally incorrect.

    This will change quickly with rapidly accelerating climate change and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events in just the last two years.

    President Obama should bring this to the public directly, that “We have a serious problem here . . . ,” while acknowledging a lot of the confusion, yet taking at worst, minimal risk and potentially gaining maximum political capital as when he came out against the Iraq War.

    Then, marshal together the best resources despite the opposition and move forward with all urgency what can be done here-and-now which will be perceived heroic as he transitions from mere facilitator to director of the changes urgently needed to act on accelerating climate change at wartime speed.

  14. Leif says:

    The point needs to be made again and again that 75% of the population is concerned about climatic destabilization and yet nothing has happened to the benefits of the Green Awakening Economy in the last10 years that the vested moneyed interests have not fought hard and even underhanded to derail. Why is that? Because, there are more profits to be made . It is cost effective! Perhaps even tax deductible for all I know. We the people know that but the question remains… unaddressed.

  15. Leif says:

    How come the speculators in rice futures armed with the best long range technology can profit from the labors of the local growers that often don’t even have cell service between themselves? Injustice compounded. Then the bankers can transfer funds across borders in nanoseconds and we have fences to prevent harvesters from picking crops where needed.

  16. Mark Shapiro says:

    How do we change Obama’s approach?

    Offer a couple key phrases, some sentences, maybe a paragraph.

    Something truthful and direct, something that captures both the danger and the solutions.

    Warning, and hope, and will.

    Words matter, What are the best?

  17. John Tucker says:

    Yes hes a politician, yes he has personal flaws, yes hes part of the hated one percent.

    Its kinda beyond ironic the thing Al Gore is most faulted for is probably the one thing he actually got most right. The one thing that probably far outdoes everything negative, considering the implications.

  18. John Tucker says:

    To be honest its slow, inapproachably intricate, repetitively stale, negative, and “boring.”

    None of that is actually really true of course, its just perceived that way. It has a lot more to do with movements within popular culture and post modernism than the actual reasoning and science.

    Indeed only when elements of conspiracy are incorporated does anything get noticed these days. ( ) – which is something that needs to be changed more than taken advantage of probably.


  19. Mike Roddy says:

    Good one, Dr. Brulle.

    Has anybody thought about why Obama has clammed up on global warming? Whatever the answer is has to make a lot of Americans uncomfortable.

  20. Solar Jim says:

    Maybe after actually looking at climate reports over several decades, the rich are centralizing their financial resources precisely for the purpose of “competitive advantage” as climate goes from $hundreds of billions of annual global damage to trillions in the coming years (due to projected exponential biogeochemical response).

  21. Solar Jim says:

    Mike, answers may include “clean fossil fracking methane, clean coal, clean atomic uranium, ocean oil” and a fuels-of-war plutocracy on steroids which influences simple politicians via a multi-billion dollar budget, like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (or 1910, in adjusted dollars).

    See Bill McKibben’s recent piece concerning $20 trillion. Regards.

  22. Quentin says:

    There aren’t people who “believe in” global warming there are people who “understand” global warming and those that do not.

    The chart : Percent of Americans Who Believe the Effects of Global Warming Have Already Begun to Happen would more accurately be called :

    Percent of Americans Who Understand the Effects of Global Warming Have Already Begun to Happen

    There are facts and there is belief. anthropogenic climate change is a fact. You can acknowledge it or not, you can understand it or not but it is meaningless to ‘believe’ it : “I believe ice cream.” “I believe sky.”