Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The decline of public concern on climate change in the US

Opinion polls indicate that public opinion in the US (but perhaps more widely) has cooled with regard to climate change in the past few years. What are the reasons? Commentators here on Klimazwiebel and elsewhere sometimes blame the efforts by climate sceptics to influence or 'mislead' the public. They thus are easily blamed for the lack of progress in climate policy and cast as enemies who need to be defeated. In addition, the email scandal in 2009, known as climategate, is sometimes invoked in addition. Several climate scientists and their supporters hold dear to this view. So how will they react to empirical studies which reveal their belief as a myth?




GLOBAL WARMING IS PRIMARILY CAUSED BY...
Date
Human activity
Planetary Trends
Other Reason
40%
39%
8%
36%
44%
6%
40%
42%
7%
36%
47%
7%
40%
44%
7%
41%
47%
5%
38%
45%
7%
39%
42%
7%
40%
45%
7%
34%
45%
8%
40%
44%
5%
33%
48%
11%
33%
48%
8%
35%
47%
8%
37%
50%
5%
34%
50%
6%
37%
47%
5%
38%
46%
3%
42%
47%
5%
39%
47%
6%
42%
40%
10%
39%
44%
7%
34%
48%
7%
41%
43%
7%
38%
45%
7%
44%
41%
7%
43%
43%
6%
47%
34%
8%
(source: Rasmussen Report)



There are two recent studies which should be read in this regard. The first is by Lyle Scruggs and Salil Benegal, to be published in Global Environmental Change. Here is the abstract:
Social surveys suggest that the American public’s concern about climate change has declined dramatically since 2008. This has led to a search for explanations for this decline, and great deal of speculation that there has been a fundamental shift in public trust in climate science. We evaluate over thirty years of public opinion data about global warming and the environment, and suggest that the decline in belief about climate change is most likely driven by the economic insecurity caused by the Great Recession. Evidence from European nations further supports an economic explanation for changing public opinion. The pattern is consistent with more than forty years of public opinion about environmental policy. Popular alternative explanations for declining support – partisan politicization, biased media coverage, fluctuations in short-term weather conditions – are unable to explain the suddenness and timing of opinion trends. The implication of these findings is that the ‘‘crisis of confidence’’ in climate change will likely rebound after labor market conditions improve, but not until then.
The second is by Robert J. Brulle, Jason Carmichael and J. Craig Jenkins, published in Climatic Change (paywalled but summarized here). The following quote from the conclusion (not on the previous link, but taken from the paper) summarizes their findings:

The major factors that affect levels of public concern about climate change can be
grouped into three areas. 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. 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 implication would seem to be that a mass communications effort to alter the salience
of the climate change issue is unlikely to have much impact. A great deal of focus has been devoted to the analysis and development of various communication techniques to better convey an understanding of climate change to individual members of the public. However, this analysis shows that these efforts have a minor influence, and are dwarfed by the effect of the divide on environmental issues in the political elite. Additionally, the analysis has shown that, in line with the media effects literature, the effects of communication on public opinion regarding climate change are short lived. A high level of public concern over climate change was seen only during a period of both high levels of media coverage and active statements about the issue’s seriousness from political elites. It rapidly declined when these two factors declined. Thus, if public concern is to be sustained under the present circumstances, there is a need for continuous public communications efforts to maintain public support for climate change action in the face of opposing messaging campaigns.

While these studies are somewhat inconclusive as regards the effect of weather, they agree in one important aspect: it is not the sceptical propaganda which influences public perception of climate change. The first study examines the effect of the economic crisis, while the second emphasizes the susceptibility of Republicans for climate sceptical arguments. Activist climate scientists should take heed and think again. Which war do they think they are fighting?

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

Reiner

"Several climate scientists and their supporters hold dear to this view. So how will they react to empirical studies which reveal their belief as a myth?"

Irgendwie fühle ich mich angesprochen ;-)

Sie werden überrascht sein, aber ich sehe mich bestätigt durch die Studien.

Erst einmal sollte man sich klar machen, dass die beiden letztgenannten Studien unterschiedliche Dinge untersuchen:

Scrugs und Benegal untersuchen die Gründe für die VERÄNDERUNGEN der Zustimmungswerte. Einverstanden, die wirtschaftliche Krise kann ich sehr gut nachvollziehen, die Wetterkapriolen 2011 scheinen sich nicht sonderlich bemerkbar zu machen. (Interessant übrigens der jüngste Zustimmungsanstieg, den manche auf die zunehmend kritische Berichterstattung in Bezug auf die republ. Präsidentschaftskandidaten und ihren Aussagen zum Klimawandel zurückführen.)

Für wichtiger halte ich aber die Untersuchung der Frage, warum die Zustimmungswerte in den USA so signifikant geringer liegen (vor und nach der Finanzkrise) im Vergleich zur restlichen Welt. Ich müsste jetzt suchen, erinnere mich aber vage an eine Studie aus einer Vielzahl von Ländern, wo die Zustimmungsquoten so um 2/3 und mehr lagen, in Schwellen- und Entwicklungsländern sogar höher als bei uns in Europa.

Diese Frage sehe ich in der letzten Studie von Brulle et al. beantwortet. Kontroverse Medienbericht plus Klimawandel im Parteienstreit zwischen Demokraten und Republikanern.

Also: Wer oder was ist dafür verantwortlich, dass z.B. republikanische Präsidentschaftskandidaten (buhlend um Stimmen der TeaParty-Anhänger, ängstlich kneifend vor der Medienmacht von z.B. Fox) so klimaskeptisch sind?

Sie kennen meine Meinung, ich bleibe dabei. Obgleich der Artikel von Naomi Klein aufzeigte, dass ein reines Zurückführen auf Geld und Lobbyismus zu kurz greift, diesen Aspekt hatten wir vor lauter Schminke ganz vergessen zu diskutieren.

Viele Grüße
Andreas

Anonymous said...

Odd to claim that the Republican leaders' opinion on climate change has nothing to do with the efforts by the self-proclaimed climate skeptics to create doubt.

Mitt Romney likely changed his tone on climate change to appease the Tea Party.

Also odd to not take into account that people in time of economic problems do not become more susceptible to those screaming high and loud that action on climate change is going to ruin the economy.

Bam

Georg Hoffmann said...

@Reiner
I havent read the full papers, just the abstracts here.
Your introduction mentions climategate as an important reason for the loss of trust into climate sciences and statements of existence of climate change and its reasons. Is this your estimate or was this investigated in these studies?

Also I expressed several times already doubts on the importance (even any importance) of the behaviour of individual scientists for the confidence of the general audience into science. My little improvised poll on my blogg seem to point into the same direction. It seems improbable that something like climategate would have any influence.

eduardo said...

I am not familiar with the methods sociologist apply to design their polls, but I cannot help being a bit sceptic about the transferability of what respondents say and what they really think.

I would conduct the following experiment. Give each respondent 100 eur, and ask them to distribute it according to what he/she thinks are the more urgent problems facing mankind (hunger, climate change, poverty, etc..) . He/she could also keep as much as desired. I am curious about what would be the result and whether it would change through time. Perhaps I would be surprised.

Reiner Grundmann said...

Andreas

Gallup has conducted a worldwide poll in 2007-9. The results are reported on Wikipedia here.
"Weighting countries to a 2008 World Bank population estimate, sixty-one percent of individuals world-wide are aware of global warming, developed countries more aware than developing, with Africa the least aware. Latin America and developed countries in Asia lead the belief that climate change is a result of human activities while Africa, parts of Asia and the Middle East, and a few countries from the Former Soviet Union lead in the opposite. Awareness often translates to concern, although of those aware, individuals Europe and develop countries in Asia perceive global warming as a greater threat than others."

97% of US citizens are "aware" of climate change (96% of Germans).
63% of US citizens see climate change as a "threat", compared to 60% in Germany.

You ask: "Wer oder was ist dafür verantwortlich, dass z.B. republikanische Präsidentschaftskandidaten ... so klimaskeptisch sind?"

My answer would be that their position has nothing to do with a scientific preference (or denial). CLimate change for the republican is framed according to basic political values around freedom, taxation, and government intervention. Science has nothing to do with it. It is a welcome addition if scandals can be used (from within climate science) to bolster their case.

Anonymous said...

Reiner, your answer to Andreas is rather problematic, since most Republican candidates in the 2008 elections had no problem accepting the science behind climate change.

John McCain crafted several climate bills, Mike Huckabee loudly stated that climate change is real, that humans are responsible, and that we should do something about it, and Mitt Romney was in a video with Nancy Pelosi urging action on climate change in 2008. The most skeptical of them all was Ron Paul, and even he talked about emission reductions!

That does not mean they were supporters of the various proposed policy actions, but only Ron Paul contradicted (to some extent) the science. Now, all remaining candidates either claim it is a big hoax (Santorum), or keep as quiet as possible and wriggle their way out of any questions (Romney).

Bam

Reiner Grundmann said...

Georg

The role of climategate was mentioned in Scruggs and Benegal's paper:
"Claims that the so-called 'climategate' scandal – a cause
celebre for the climate skeptic movement (Pearce, 2010) – can
explain declining public opinion about climate change also fail to
explain the timing of opinion change. Public opinion fell
precipitously before 'climategate' occurred. In an October 2009
survey, one month before the computer hacking incident a Pew Centre [study?] Center found that 57% of the public believed that there was solid
evidence of warming, down 14 points from the last time Pew asked
the question in April 2008. The next time Pew asked the question,
in October 2010, support warming was occurring was virtually
identical to what it was the previous October. Evidence from
Stanford, Gallup and Fox polls also suggests that the decline in the
public’s belief in planetary warming occurred before 'climategate'."

As to your intuition about the unimportance of single scientists' behaviour I would be more careful. As I pointed out to Andreas, perceived malpractice can do harm. But the scientific details are not interesting to the public. Their general concern does not depend on the state of the knowledge within the IPCC.

Reiner Grundmann said...

Eduardo

can you explain what you mean by "perhaps I would be surprised"? That many people would just keep all the money?

Surveys are what they are. The real test comes when policies are proposed that are costly, perceived as unjust, complicated, inefficient etc. Then a diffuse support can falter.

Hans von Storch said...

Also in our survey of opinions among Hamburg citizens, we found the decline in concern beginning prior to the 2009-events:

Ratter, B.M.W., K.H.I. Philipp and H. von Storch, 2012: Between hype and decline – recent trends in public perception of climate change. Environmental Science & Policy 18: 3 – 8

Ratter's survey covers so far 4 years, 2008-2011, and the decline is steady in these four years. A new one is scheduled in the coming months (about April, as in the previous years)

Gallup reports something similar for the US, but in that case the time series is much longer, and it seems that the recent decline is part of an attention cycle, bouncing back from the hype in 2007 when the IPCC report etc. came out.

hvw said...

Reiner, you interpret

"...they agree in one important aspect: it is not the skeptical propaganda which influences public perception of climate change."

Brulle et al. in their regression analysis do not consider any one predictor variable that represents "skeptical propaganda" (see the list in section 3). Consequently they can not and do not talk about the influence of "skeptical propaganda".

If you were to assume that "skeptical propaganda" influences the number and character of "elite cues" (positions adopted and voiced by politicians) then the study even indicates the contrary of your interpretation.

Did I miss something here?

Reiner Grundmann said...

hvw

sure, they do not measure the effect of sceptics but make two important statements, which taken together, justify my statement.

The first is their statement "numerous topical blogs, websites and media projects have been
developed to influence media attention and public opinion on climate (Greenberg et al.
2011). Yet there has been no systematic empirical analysis of their impact on public beliefs
or the threat associated with climate change as a result of these efforts."

So they do state that no study exists that would prove the point about the influence of sceptical (or other) propaganda.

Brulle et al assume that it is issue saliency that is the important variable. This was confirmed by their analysis.

The second basic assumption (which was also confirmed) is the bi-partisan support for climate policies (remember the days of McCain?). Once the Rebulicans refused to play ball, the game was over.

hvw said...

Reiner,

1. It is not proven that B influences A because the question has not been studied.

2. C influences A.

3. Therefore B doesn't influence A. ???

"Brulle et al assume that it is issue saliency that is the important variable. This was confirmed by their analysis."

Well, issue salience is the variable they try to explain:

"Such questions are tapping into the specific issue salience of global climate change, as well as its perceived seriousness. Accordingly, we label this measure the Climate Change Threat Index (CCTI)".

I know, I sound like an idiot. But not on purpose. I am just mightily confused. Either you did't really read the paper, or, more likely and more disturbing for me, my approach to interpret a sociology paper is just totally wrong.

Reiner Grundmann said...

hvw

Sorry if I have contributed to your confusion. I did not want to suggest a syllogism of the type you put forward; the "therefore" in your item C above does not follow. Brulle et al. say we know that the sceptical influence on public opinion has not been established. But other mechanisms can be shown to be important.

Scruggs and Benegal in their paper say:

"The media-coverage/partisanship explanation is logically consistent,
but there is little evidence that it actually explains the
magnitude of public opinion changes observed in recent years.
McCright and Dunlap (2011), for example, explain how and why
American conservatives have tried to affect the climate change
debate; they do not systematically evaluate how much (if at all)
these strategies have actually worked on public opinion."

I guess my point is to underline how little evidence there is for hand waving assertions of the type "because the fossil fuel lobby and their hired sceptics are so noisy the public is confused and has no appetite for climate policies."

hvw said...

Reiner,

thanks for helping me out. What was wrong was my approach towards your interpretation: I just saw it as a crass case of the "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence"-fallacy but missed your point, which is more related to the big picture.

I totally agree with your last sentence.

The study indicates that the communication of scientific information about climate change has pretty much no effect. It occurred to me that this should imply that disinformation is equally ineffective.

"Which war do they think they are fighting?" is a smart question. And this thread made me see a number of topics that showed up on Klimazwiebel lately in a more sophisticated manner.

The authors identify the anti-environmental positions of the Republicans as a major reason for the decline from 2008 on and consider this partisan polarization a very persistent feature that will likely not be influenced by information and communication because it "reflects vested economic interests". Now this basically shouts "System Change, not Climate Change".

The paper supports the futility of the tactic which you beautifully captured as the "Black Knight approach".

The advice to climate scientists who feel the "responsibility to actually do something about it, enough so that action actually takes place", but are not ready to join the World Revolution, would then be to look into agenda-setting theory and related fields to find a strategy. The recent PIK press release (Greenland ice melting), which refers to geologic timescales, can then be read as part of an informed strategy instead of my first reaction to it ("pfft, need media coverage again to secure funding?")

eduardo said...

@ 8

Reiner,

I would be surprised if much money is collected.
Yes, I know that surveys are what they are, and I know that sociologist have methods to interpret the answers the respondents give.
I think that answers of the type 'which is the most pressing problem in your opinion' or ' do you think that climate change is a pressing problem' are not very meaningful. I would rephrase them as' how much taxes would you be ready to pay to solve the climate problem' or something similar. But maybe I am mistaken. I leave it as an ethical exercise :-)

My admittedly limited personal experience is that the vast majority of people I know do not really see climate change as a real pressing problem. I guess that quite a few would respond positively to the question ' more taxes- better health service' but ' more-taxes- better climate..' ?

eduardo said...

I forgot to mention that the solution is actually easy. Let the rich pay for it !

Anonymous said...

Reiner,

"Commentators here on Klimazwiebel and elsewhere sometimes blame the efforts by climate sceptics to influence or 'mislead' the public. They thus are easily blamed for the lack of progress in climate policy and cast as enemies who need to be defeated."

Yes, they are easily blamed, partly because the narrative is simple, even if the reality mightn't be. When there is so much disinformation coming from so many places, an effective way to combat it (politically) is to focus on the worst, or most obvious high-profile cases of climate science 'denialism'.

The finding that public opinion on climate change is strongly affected by the media, by party politics and by wallet-worries, will not likey be novel information to many. Your question, Reiner, is probably not well-premised.

berry.

(Thanks for the heads up to the Sherwood Rowland post)

barry

Anonymous said...

I short-changed the social study on attitudes and the GFC in my last post. I should have said: it is no surprise that public opinion on climate change, including *facts*, is influenced by people's pecuniary concerns. Commentators fairly regularly (where I read, not greenpeace-like websites) indicate economic oppurtunities from new technologies.

The difficulty of accuracy in social studies is evident in the section on the NYT. Categorizing news articles using only several key words ("critic", "skeptic," or "doubt") to differentiate doesn't seem like a very robust method. I wonder if they tested a random sub-sample of the 1277 for actual content. Superficially one could expect anomalies to cancel out, but it shouldn't be assumed. And a change in tone and emphasis over time could easily pass through unfiltered. Not to mention a study of media behaviour rests on only one publication!

In the US, the decline in public concern is coincident with the change of government. The Scruggs and Benegal study points out that the EU experienced s 'similar magnitude' of decline in public concern over the sae period, but details are scant.

barry.

eduardo said...

According to some surveys, about 65% of the adult population would agree with an organ transplantation. However, only 16% have filled in a Spendenausweis, an identification tag to be carried in the wallet displaying their agreement, although it is free of costs and can be easily downloaded from the net or whisked at a pharmacy.

When I was listening to this news this morning , I wondered if this mismatch could not be transported also to the climate change realm. To say in a poll that one supports action against climate change is not the same as really supporting them and their consequences

Reiner Grundmann said...

Eduardo

the discrepancy between stated and revealed preferences (as economists put it) is well known in the social science literature, but it does not tell us much about climate change attitudes and propensity to act. Why? Because, unlike in your example there is no clearly outlined practical option. To which precise practical steps shall we compare the public concern about climate change? To a readiness to support:

- carbon markets/certificates?
- higher energy prices?
- higher petrol prices?
- carbon taxes?
- restriction of mobility?
- nuclear power?
- ... (add your own)

or all of the above?

eduardo said...

Reiner,

thats the point I am trying to make.
Instead of including questions like 'do you believe in climate change' which are any way quite ambiguous, I think they should ask'
what is the highest price of petrol/electricity bill/etc you would accept for the sake of climate?'

Werner Krauss said...

@Eduardo #21

How much would you pay? Honestly?

Anonymous said...

Werner,

of course, nothing. the rich should pay first.

More honestly, I guess that my upper limit would be 20 cents per litre of petrol as 'climate induced cost'. This corresponds to an estimation of roughly 100 $ per tonne of CO2, which is in the high range of current estimations. I think the median of all estimations is about 15 $.

If those 20 cents are well used to reduce emissions, it would be a good investment.

Werner Krauss said...

Eduardo, thanks.

Very detailed answer, indeed!
And, if your time allows, here a very naive question:

How exactly do you correlate $ and emissions? How could "the government" use your tax money efficiently to reduce emissions?
these information would help the average citizen to answer the question to the best of their knowledge. For example, I have no idea how much I would be ready to pay, because there is a lack of imagination on my side.

eduardo said...

Werner,
that I dont know. I think the goal of a survey is to probe how serious the citizen think climate change might become, and not to as a receipt implement policies.

I was arguing that if that question would be included in the survey, assuming that all the money goes to 'reduce emissions somehow' the amount offered by he citizens would be quite low. I may be wrong, but I would be interested in the answer

Werner Krauss said...

Eduardo,

I think I also wouldn't give any money to a project that promises "to reduce emissions somehow", but has no outline or detailed plan. And I think most of the people would join me, independently of what they think about climate change. So I think your question needs some refinement to become really interesting -:)