American opinion of climate change

Contrary to popular opinion, Americans are not turning en-masse into climate change-denying hicks. According to a National Science Foundation-funded study conducted by Jon Krosnick‘s Political Psychology Research Group at Stanford University, “huge majorities” believe that our planet is warming as the result of human activity, and support government regulation to deal with the problem.

I’m ashamed to say that I had bought into this popular misconception of US public opinion, and like many science communicators have been wringing my hands over what to do about this perceived slide into contrarianism and ignorance. Now I’ve written a little on the subject for this blog, and also contributed to the internal debate within the Earth science community. But my words betray a lack of suggestions as to how to improve the public’s acceptance of the near consensus among scientists on anthropogenic climate change.

It was therefore refreshing to read Krosnick’s opinion piece in Tuesday’s New York Times. In his article, the psychologist and communication specialist presented the key results of the Stanford survey, and interpreted them as showing that Americans remain on-message when it comes to anthropogenic climate change.

So what of other opinion poll results which purport to show the opposite? Krosnick dissects a number of poll questions which have given rise to claims that Americans are turning against the environmentalist message, and shows how the wording of these questions often confuses perceptions of scientific evidence with expressions of personal opinion…

“[C]onsider a widely publicized Gallup question: ‘Thinking about what is said in the news, in your view, is the seriousness of global warming generally exaggerated, generally correct or is it generally underestimated?’ This question asked about respondents’ perceptions of the news, not the respondents’ perception of warming. A person who believes climate change has been happening might also feel that news media coverage of it has been exaggerated.”

Maybe you consider this to be a trivial distinction, but when it comes to rigorous surveys of popular opinion, such matters can have a significant effect on the results. And that’s not all, as Krosnick goes on to explain. When drafting survey questions you should only ever ask one thing at a time, and choose language that makes it easy for the respondents to comprehend and answer each question. In the case of climate change polling, these rules are very often violated. We are not talking here about deliberate political bias on the part of pollsters; sloppy survey design and unconscious bias is enough to skew poll results and render them worthless.

So what exactly did Krosnick and his team find?

“Although issue publics usually divide about equally on opposing sides — think of abortion or immigration — 88 percent of the climate change issue public in our survey believed that global warming has been happening; 88 percent attributed responsibility for it to human action; 92 percent wanted the federal government to limit the amount of greenhouse gases that businesses can emit. Put simply, the people whose votes are most powerfully shaped by this issue are sending a nearly unanimous signal to their elected representatives.

All this makes global warming a singular issue in American politics. Even as we are told that Americans are about equally divided into red and blue, a huge majority shares a common vision of climate change. This creates a unique opportunity for elected representatives to satisfy a lot of voters.”

So cheer up folks, it’s not all doom and gloom on the climate change mitigation front.