Dazed but Mostly Confused: Why Americans don’t know what to think about climate change

A string of recent polls have heralded the decline of American interest in climate change: fewer people believe in it, fewer people see it as a serious problem, and more people think scientists don’t agree about it. Coupled with recent scandals over hacked emails and allegations of inaccuracy in the IPCC, these polls seem to show that the beleaguered climate community is losing the message battle. Last week, however, Stanford professor Jon Krosnick presented findings that appear to buck this trend: Americans do care about climate change, and they want their government to do something about it. While the Stanford results have changed the debate around climate change polling, they have not ended the controversy. Indeed, the most striking aspect of the past twenty years of polling is the lack of consistency–polls asking similar questions, taken within months of each other, get different answers.

us_2008_prez_election-popvote-11In March of 2005, an ABC poll found that 85% of Americans believed that climate change is “probably happening”; six months later, ABC found that only 56% of people said they were completely or mostly convinced that climate change is “actually happening.” Fifty percent of Americans report believing climate change to be human induced in a Gallup poll taken March 2010; the Stanford poll three months later found that proportion to be twenty points lower. In March of 2005, only 35% of Americans in an ABC poll felt that “most” scientists agree about climate change; three months later, a majority of Americans (52%) told PIPA they agreed that there was scientific consensus.

Our confusion about climate change extends to climate policy. Besides the contradictory “wishful thinking” approach that we take to protecting the climate (Americans tend to support regulation of greenhouse gases, but oppose taxes on electricity and gas), there are inconsistencies across polls. In December of 2009, a USA Today/Gallup poll found Americans to be mostly skeptical of the economic benefits of climate policies: 42% felt that steps to reduce climate change would hurt the economy, and 36% thought it would help. Six months later, the Stanford poll found practically the reverse: 56% felt that reducing greenhouse gases would help the U.S. economy, and only 20% thought it would hurt.

What can we take from these polls? Global Warming’s Six Americas finds that Americans are divided into six distinct groups with regard to their perceptions of climate change. The groups range from the Alarmed to the Dismissive, and vary according to degree of certainty, level of awareness, and demographic characteristics. While a slight majority of all Americans are convinced that climate change is real, the largest single group, the Concerned, comprises only 33% of the total population. Each of the other groups is small, representing less than 20% of the population. With our public fragmented into six groups, there is little wonder that Americans don’t speak with a single (or even a two-sided) voice on climate change.

While many point to media coverage of stolen emails and IPCC errors as the main reason behind our changing views, the role of the media may be overstated. Krosnick found that despite the hype and controversy surrounding the leaked emails, only 9% of respondents had even heard about the emails; only a tiny fraction of those felt that the emails indicated that scientists should not be trusted. According to the Six Americas report, the groups most likely to change their minds about climate change are also those who have below average news exposure. These groups tend to watch more entertainment programming than news and are unlikely to seek out information about climate change. This helps to explain why what has been termed “climategate” may have had relatively little impact on general public opinion.

The polls themselves offer some explanation for the confusion. Framing and wording can have a large impact on results, and as Krosnick points out, asking if climate change is “probably happening” is different than asking if there is “solid” evidence for climate change. Asking if media reports of climate change are exaggerated does not measure belief in climate change as a real phenomenon. While methodology may lead to inconsistent poll results, it is also possible that our beliefs really do shift regularly. Seemingly mercurial polls may simply reflect opinions that are confused and prone to frequent change.

Although weather is not climate, confusion about this distinction may be at the heart of our ambivalence about climate change. Weather is the way that we experience climate on a time frame and scale we can relate to; although incorrect, it is common to interpret seasonal colder temperatures as evidence against climate change. Just as the leap in public awareness over climate change between 1986 and 1988 correlated with “record summer heat,” Krosnick finds that the unusually cold temperatures in 2008 most reliably explain the ensuing decline in public confidence regarding the reality of climate change.

The fact that Americans do not feel personally connected to climate change may also explain our shifting opinions. Typical mental constructs conceive of climate change as a threat that will affect others, but not us; will come slowly and in the distant future; and will not seriously diminish our quality of life. The “finite pool of worry,” which limits our objects of concern, does not allow us to give priority to such remote problems. Instead, we care more about the failing economy or our failing health. Given that lack of relevancy, it is not surprising that people yet to sort through the multitude of information about climate change. We haven’t formed consistent thoughts about climate change in part because it’s not all that important to us.

Public opinion, confused by divergent wordings, changing weather, and the remote and low-priority nature of climate change, is reflected in inconsistent polls. The policy makers who rely on these polls to formulate their positions have been left in a tough position; take Lindsey Graham’s most recent change of heart as an example. It seems that policy makers, like the public, have been left somewhat dazed, but mostly just confused.

For further information on the polls:

Stanford Poll, 2010

Gallup, 2010

ABC, 2005

PIPA, 2005

USA Today/Gallup, 2009

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