Gallup Polls show that disinformation campaigns to prevent climate action may have had a relatively small impact on perception. At first glance, it looks like maybe about 10% of Americans have bought the lies, with the change in views starting in 2009 and persisting to the present. According to Coral Davenport's recent article, in 1998 Exxon-Mobil started funding the Heartland Institute which has been one of the most explicit climate-lie-machines. Obviously, more funding may have happened that we don't know about. In 2009, “Climategate” made headlines and has been attributed as the cause for increased skepticism about climate science. But the Gallop poll shows that views had already shifted by March of 2009, while the faked scandal broke in November of 2009. By the next poll in 2010, views hadn't changed much. This indicates that views have been less manipulated by "deniers" than generally assumed. It also hints at the real reason why real climate action has been struggling to gain any momentum in the USA.
By Matt Owens May 13, 2013
For anyone concerned with global climate change, spurring action is obviously a primary concern. I think it is possible to get Americans to act. To understand how, I'm going to try and paint a picture of American climate attitudes based on these polls, my own experience, and the most recent public thought (which primarily includes the Notre Dame April 10th talk by Andrew Revkin, recent University of Chicago panel talk with Carol Browner, Coral Davenport, and Mark Templeton, the National Journal piece by Coral Davenport, and Joe Romm's overview of Davenport's article).
An interesting trend has emerged where slightly more people think that global warming is already happening, while more also think the opposite: that it “will never happen.” Caution is needed here because some Americans hold the incorrect view that global warming is just a natural cycle and will thus be mild and/or temporary. This frame of reference may have been used by some respondents. Generally, polling is very sensitive to word choice, implications of phrase structure, context with other questions, and current vernacular meanings.
This poll asked about both “climate change” and “global warming” worry as 2 separate terms for the first time. "Climate change" is gaining on "global warming" in the US as the common term, but both are still used. 20% said they worry “not at all” about climate change and 23% said the same for global warming (see the chart at top of page).
Presumably, those who think global climate change isn't real or even possible would also say that they aren't worrying about it "at all." Why would they? Therefore we can say the percent of people worrying about it “not at all” serves as a good conservative proxy for the extreme incorrect view.
This is significant, and considering general distribution trends among populations, if only 23% of Americans think global warming is fake, that would represent a substantial public consensus that some degree of global warming is real and worth some concern.
Also, some of the people who aren't worrying about it may still think it's real, but they may just be very carefree people. Therefore the true number who think it's not worth concern may be significantly less than 23%. And in fact, only about 15% say that global warming will never happen (see the second chart "When will the effects..."). Presumably, all of these people with such definitive views are also “not at all” worried about it and comprise most of the not-worried 23%. This validates the conclusion that regardless of technical understanding or comprehension of the threat size, the vast majority of Americans think global warming is real.
Another very interesting result is that so few people answer “within a few years.” Also, the percent saying effects have already started has remained essentially unchanged since at least 1997. It's varied between about 50% and 60%. Practically speaking there's been very little change over the years in all these poll answers. A lot gets said in the media about climate change being contentious - and while a few people do contend it, the majority it seems, don't - and haven't, since at least the late 1990's.
The fact that so few people think climate change effects will start in "a few years" indicates a curious transition. The response rate has remained almost unchanged since 1997. Surely people haven't held this view for 16 years.
Another curious feature [in reference to when the effects are expected] is that the only real (but fairly minor) change over time starts in 2007 as a few less people said "not within my lifetime, but affect the future." That slight change transitioned to about a 10% rise in the incorrect view "will never happen" in 2009. After shifting, the trend has stuck there. Overall it's not a major change and the noticeable thing is how steady the results are over 16 years.
So how is it possible that the public majority has picked up that climate change is happening already as far back as 1997, but still they place their level of concern about it below almost every other environmental issue? I'll return to that later.
Another poll question asks about perception of exaggeration in the media on the issue, and the trend is not easy to interpret because general views of media credibility have been steadily and seriously falling across all political leanings to very low levels as-of-late (for both TV and newspaper media according to Gallup). In this poll, about 40% of people said that the media exaggerate the seriousness of climate change. Of course, exaggeration in media of all kinds is hardly new. On the other side, about 33% think that media generally underestimate the seriousness of global warming. It's hard to say with certainty, but it stands to reason that the same people constitute the 33% who say they worry a great deal about the issue; and, that the 24% who think the media are generally accurate about climate mostly corresponds to the 24% who worry a “fair amount” about climate change.
I've studied both climate science and media coverage in general - and I'm what you could call a news junkie. In my experience, the media have vastly underestimated the seriousness of this issue. Time and again the correspondent clearly knows less than the minimum needed to intelligently examine or present the given climate topic. And most news writers clearly struggle to even cover the topic coherently. From NPR and PBS to the Washington Post and every other major outlet I can think of - major failures occur and recur with climate reporting. Typically, these failures punctuate long periods of no reporting at all on the issue. But I don't want to dwell on the failures of the past. By and large, the media clearly still doesn't understand the issue in sufficient detail to cover it coherently. They're doing better and better, but I see major structural obstacles to change. Could it be their failure on this issue is why confidence in the media has been declining so dramatically? Probably not, but who knows?
A really meaty question in the Gallop poll was “Do you think that global warming will pose a serious threat to you or your way of life in your lifetime?” To this, 34% said yes. This number has fluctuated as high as 40% in 2008 and as low as 25% in 1997. On the other side of the issue, 64% think that it won't effect them personally as of March. That number is down slightly since 1997, and has ranged from 58% to 69%. Again, fairly stable numbers. This question is fairly unambiguous: "pose a serious threat to you or your way of life?" That's basically saying, will it threaten to kill you, destroy your lifestyle, or somehow force you to change lifestyles? That's a large range; but even at the lower end the threat to lifestyle is fairly big. Maintaining lifestyle is after all one of the most important things for many Americans.
So only about 15% or maybe 23% being conservative think that global climate change is not worth any "worry," and, therefore the vast majority probably think it is serious, or they at least are open-minded to thinking that it could become serious.
That nearly 70% of Americans think they won't be affected by climate change is clearly the heart of the reason why inaction has dominated so far ...right? I'll come back to this question later.
Finally, an interesting new question added in 2013 asked “Which comes closer to your view – it is possible to take specific actions that will slow down the effects of global warming (or) the effects of global warming are part of a natural process that can’t be altered?”
40% chose the natural process that can't be stopped and 56% chose it can be stopped/slowed now by action. It's hard to imagine how someone could say it can be stopped or slowed now if they think it's not real - because most people who think it's fake also think it's impossible for humans to seriously impact climate.
So what a fascinating picture this all leaves us with! Key points are as follows:
Most Americans (56%) think something can be done now to alter climate.
33% think that the media underestimate the seriousness of the climate issue.
33% (presumably mostly the same group as the point above) “worry” about it a “great deal.”
34% think it will pose a serious personal threat (to theirselves).
24% worry about it a “fair amount.”
64% think it will not pose a serious personal threat in their lifetimes.
Only 15% think it will “never happen.”
Only 21% think they don't understand the issue “well” or “at all;” and that percent has remained stable since 2006 after a peak in 1992 at 44% - so about 79% of Americans understand the issue “well” enough from their self-perspective to have an opinion (see part 1 post).
Also, about 80% are concerned to some extent about it.
Levels of worry are worth reexamining now.
Worry is significantly higher for extinction of plant and animal species, loss of tropical rainforests, and pollution/contamination, of water, air, and soil. Here's my view on why:
People worry disproportionately about immediate scary risks, regardless of actual probability or true physical impact. Sending a text while driving down the highway is often less worrying than poking your finger into a dark hole in a tree in the woods - there might be a spider in there. Likewise, toxic waste in our drinking water, air, or soil could give us cancer. Most Americans know someone who has died from cancer and many Americans are aware of the synthetic chemical cocktail around us and how it even permeates nature - who hasn't heard about some ocean fish being declared "toxic waste" because it'd accumulated so many toxins? Cancer - and the visceral fear it elicits is very strong indeed. That would explain why the toxic pollution worry levels are reported higher than worry over rain forest destruction, extinction, and urban sprawl.
The fact that more people are worried about tropical rainforests and species extinction confirms that climate change impacts are very poorly understood. This is potentially a large opportunity because it shows that people do actually care about the natural world (which we all happen to benefit greatly from).
Only 23% of respondents were “not at all” worried about global warming, which is higher than for the other non-visceral issues of rain forest destruction, species loss, and suburban sprawl, which ranked 13%, 13%, and 17% respectively. As with the other questions in the survey, responses have been very constant over time. The visceral issues have also been remarkably constant over time (since at 1989), staying at levels of 2% to 9% (6% to 9% for the 2013 poll) for those “not at all worried” about them.
Comparing the non-visceral reaction of climate change to rain forest and species losses, it would appear that Americans actually do care about climate change as much as other non-visceral environmental issues, but about 10% of the population are misinformed, constituting the difference between the 13% rates for rain forest and species non-concern versus the 23% non-concern over climate change. In fact, climate change was at 15% non-concern in the the 1990's but the shift that happened in the 2000's changed that. Rush Limbaugh's weekly audience is about 5% of America, perhaps that has had some influence?
Considering all this, it appears that about 80% of the American public is actually concerned to at least some degree about climate change, and that's even though about 40% also hold the view that climate change is mostly not caused by man. Holding 2 contradicting views is common, especially with respect to politics.
And global warming is a political issue because it has to do with the distribution of wealth, power, and social justice. Addressing climate change now requires substantial expense and effort on the part of currently productive adults. This means sacrifice. And - for the benefit of perhaps mostly someone else in the future. Negative consequences (both climate and social response) for not acting are not clear to most people, or necessarily knowable as of yet for the social response. This violates and makes a complete hash of many political preconceptions. It also forces the door open on thinking about “externalities.”
The Earth used to be a big place - and that meant consuming natural resources to the point of permanently destroying them was impossible. If the forest was clear-cut, there were more forests. If the soil became exhausted, a new field could be used and the old one left to rejuvenate. But that pattern is approaching its limits - human appropriation of photosynthesis is now about 1/3 of all land photosynthesis each year (Running; Science, 2012). But most of all, pollution is becoming a serious problem - especially of greenhouse gases. The Earth isn't big enough anymore to be able to clean up our after us “naturally.”
Externalities are side-effects of economic activity that negatively impact people who have no say in the matter. With climate change, this applies to future generations especially but definitely also applies to intergenerational conflict as those under 18 (or 21 depending on perspective) are being harmed by the actions of their parents. Emissions of greenhouse gases clearly will impact many people who have no say in the issue. Many countries are essentially powerless. These issues have been around for a long time, but typically the impacts were small and/or mostly isolated. Radically changing the global climate is a quantum leap in the size and scope of externalities. Perhaps future generations will decide to tax older people more as compensation for climate change. Or perhaps future nations will decide to tax other nations for compensation.
Clearly, action would be better now than later. So why then, do the one-third of Americans who (we can reasonably conclude) (1) worry a great deal about climate change; (2) think it will pose a serious risk to themselves; and, (3) think the media are underestimating it, not do something about it? Why haven't they done anything so far? Global emissions have continued to accelerate. American emissions keep growing, albeit at a slower pace, but not because of any action, just by coincidence of economic factors. I think it could be remarkably simple: lack of organization.
Existing environmental organizations are stuck in their ways like most organizations - sometimes even made so by founding documents or bylaws. The biggest and most effective organization I'm aware of to organize a fight against climate change is 350.org. Full disclosure: Fairfax Climate Watch just started a 350 local group.
The polling data shows that changes over time which have been attributed to various influences are trivial and transitory. According to the poll data alone, it seems the situation has been ripe for action - namely through the formation of new organizations. But nobody seems to have thought of that idea until when, in 2007 Bill McKibben founded the predecessor to 350,org: Step it Up. When I said 350 was the biggest one I'm aware of, FCW isn't far removed from 2nd place, and it's barely off the ground (or perhaps in time we'll find out it's just being dragged along the ground?)
Reflecting back on the people I've known over the years, I can see how curious a situation this has come to be. And reflecting on myself, I see - perhaps most clearly - why it's taken so long. First, I found out just how confusing global warming was in high school. I wrote a 10 or 20 page paper on it and I wasn't too sure what to make of the whole thing other than it looked bad and it looked like we'd probably already set ourselves up for some unpleasant damage in the future. It's a confusing topic.
There aren't simple or concise resources out there on it - and there are lots and lots of complicating factors. Even for the scientists who study key aspects of the climate, it's complicated. With the environmental movement there were specific isolated issues of contamination or degradation. For example: some chemical was killing some animal. Okay, got it - ban the chemical. Or, some business wanted to put a new mine in somewhere that would likely put nasty chemicals into the water and destroy the river that everyone likes. Okay - stop the mine from opening. Or maybe there was a factory that was dumping waste and causing cancer in a local community. You get the idea. All you have to do is say 2 words, "toxic waste" and people know what you mean. Right now we're at a point where people answer slightly differently based on use of the phrase "climate change" or "global warming."
Climate change is becoming more clear-cut and concisely defined for general understanding, but it's still not entirely there yet. This makes communication about it harder. The news media have a hard time talking about it. In fact, they're probably very well-aware how ignorant they are, and that's another motivation for them to leave it untouched. To make it even more difficult to communicate on, the impacts are thus far mostly weighted to the future (although the early Arctic sea-ice decline may be changing that somewhat). With toxic waste or pollution it was easy to say, “look all these kids already got cancer because of this pollution, so let's stop it!” In contrast, the future impacts of climate change are hard to pin down into specifics of when and where. This combines with the socioeconomic habit passed down to us of ignoring externalities.
It's hard to articulate why climate change will be so destructive without having a list of specific guaranteed destructive events. There are still many uncertainties involved with estimating future impacts, but 99% of the possibilities are bad to horrific. And none of the good possibilities are really that good either: they're sort of like winning a live goldfish at the fair. It probably dies before you even get home.
If you want to tell someone about why we need to adopt clean energy instead of fossil fuels, and they ask "what are the impacts of climate change," you can say: "increased storm intensity, increased wildfire frequency and intensity, increased drought and flooding, likely reduction in crop production, sea level rise and the loss of trillions of dollars in real-estate, increased maximum hurricane strength, and changes to the weather patterns in ways that will likely be more difficult to farm with and generally live with."
That's a pretty good list, and even though a lot of the issues are qualified, it's easy to see how those qualifications paint a very serious picture. You could go on to add that "the kicker is that all those impacts are pretty much locked-in now, and they could all get much worse still. We're now at a point where we can confidently say that agriculture as it's practiced today - where plants grow outside - would probably suffer global famine-inducing losses this century if we allow greenhouse gas emissions to keep rising."
So that's quite a mouthful compared to “chemical X is in the water and killing animal Z.” But it's doable. And about those qualifications, each of those maybes probablies, and frequency versus intensity statements are quite deliberate with a good bit of support backing each word up.
Interestingly, just a year ago I wouldn't have been terribly confident in making a similar statement about consequences - it's been through fairly exhaustive research on my part that I've gained that confidence. And I studied climate change in college. I knew climate change was bad and I knew the risk profile was far in one direction, and I knew a lot of the mechanisms, but I didn't have the confidence to communicate those because I understood the situation through a lens that I knew was unique to myself. In order to get the idea across, I would have had to make the audience see through my eyes, which is a big challenge that I've got quite a bit of experience with and respect for (similar to the respect I have for tigers).
With such a complex issue as climate change, I think people come at it from their own angles and use their own personal devices to discern the issue's validity. But I'm fairly sure that most people aren't even aware of how that process works - they are so personal and automatic that people don't often “see” their own validation devices.
Let's say you just learned about climate change from a really well-made video - you'd known about it before, but just barely - and you're alarmed now. But you used automatic devices to validate the urgency of the issue instead of reading the 20 or 30 scientific papers cited at the end of the video and then in turn validating each of those papers by checking their references too. Now, in this scenario, the thought does cross your mind that you should cross check some of this stuff, having just learned about it, so you get online and go to a trusted resource, and after about 2 hours you're starting to think it's probably going to be even worse than the video made it out. And you start to see some of the euphemisms that were used to lessen the shock to the viewer. Let's say, just to be clear, that you don't really understand any of the exact mechanisms beyond superficial flow diagrams of cause and effect - but you are bright and can tell this presentation is legit for a variety of reasons and a million little things in your memory about climate change are now fitting into a meaningful view on the issue and its seriousness.
So then you go talk to some good friends you were planning to meet for lunch. You say you've just found out that climate change is much more serious than you'd even known - and something needs to be done as soon as possible. But then one of your lunch mates says, “how are you so sure that it's truly that urgent” What do you say? You're probably at a loss for words other than “because it is.” Do you remember the complex explanation (to the extent there even was one given) of how and why the problem is so urgent? You could be bluntly honest and say something like, “because of the attitudes of the people in the video - I could relate to many of them and am familiar with that type of person - they said it was that urgent and I believe them.” Some people will accept a statement like that from some people. Credibility is contextual by topic, time, circumstances, and relationship dynamics.
Let's step back and say this lunch group has such a dynamic that they all become convinced that climate change is real and needs urgent action. What do they do next? They probably start to read more about it because it's on their minds. And then they probably start to talk to people about it. But chances are near 100% that they are going to read some material and make somewhat incorrect conclusions from it or read some totally bogus material and not realize it. But they still have the real idea right, climate is serious - action needed ASAP. So they start talking to acquaintances about climate change. These acquaintances by and large are like most people, and don't just believe anything from anyone - especially when it's something way far out from their daily conversation. A few of the bogus findings slip in as well. Having a different frame of reference, the bogus statements (even if minor) and the lack of first-hand deep technical understanding create an impression on the acquaintances: “weird and not to be taken seriously.” That's probably the average impression anyway. Individual impressions would vary quite a bit.
But what's the more commonly arrived at conclusion when an acquaintance tells you something hard to believe that you don't really know much of anything about? "Perhaps they're just worked up - too much coffee - or, how did I meet this person again?" It all depends on how well you know the person; if it's not very well, you could really have trouble finding any context for placing their statements.
Over time lots of similar encounters have built up all throughout society in America. Most people have had something like the above scenario happen, or seen some media that conveys the same thing more-or-less. For the person who isn't personally touched or receptive, they build up an overall picture which is often that: "climate change is probably real, but because most of the media and people they've heard talk about it don't have much contextual credibility, it's probably being exaggerated or distorted in some way. Other than that, who knows what's causing it or what it will do?" There are a lot of probablies in this sentiment. But even so, the total picture is unsettling for the person holding it. Normally, such serious issues are not left so uncertain in people's minds for so long.
Going back to the Gallup Poll - when 40% of Americans said they think natural influences are primarily causing global warming, how much time do you really think that 40% of Americans spent coming to that conclusion? What convinced them? Most people are pretty quick to form an opinion as - or sometimes before - they even figure out what's being talked about. These quick opinions in my experience are easily dislodged if it's done carefully.
Going back to the people I've known, it seems fairly clear now those who've been concerned about climate have been in a similar situation to the one I was in. They've had high confidence that the problem is real. But they're not confident enough over just how serious it is or might get if we don't act.
What they don't get yet is that there are a handful of cutoffs where if we emit more greenhouse gas beyond a certain total emission volume, the consequences ratchet up dramatically. There is at least one such point worth knowing, but probably about 3 in total potentially worth understanding. But, there is just no reasonable way to expect someone to learn, understand, and incorporate that info from having just read it once - especially not in the context of this article. The explanation involves moving parts of a relationship - a dynamic system. These thresholds of emissions have only been given very brief explanations on professional videos and other media about climate change. But they are understandable, it's not terribly complicated. Really everything is complicated until it's simplified with new language.
What I'm getting at with all this (I think) is twofold. First that more literature that's easier to read would be an immense help to catalyzing action by those who are just a touch of uncertainty away from being willing to take big action.
Second, there needs to be grassroots organizations that enable communication between members and enable a social learning process so that enough members have enough confidence and knowledge to be able to make complex statements about why action is needed urgently. If someone doesn't really get an issue and they try to make another person understand it, they are nearly guaranteed to fail. However, when they know the issue and know it with confidence, it's easy.
Americans' views on climate change are full of contradictions, very little actual understanding, and a healthy amount of concern. The reason almost nothing has happened on climate change so far is because even the one third who think climate will pose a risk in their lives - even this group is uncertain about the scale of the negative damage that is possible. I believe that a simple, short, and extremely well-done presentation could catalyze a rapid mobilization into grassroots organization of about one third of the American public and real political and policy action would follow faster than lightning.