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Belief in Climate Change Depends on Which Way the Wind Blows

More people think the climate is changing, and many say the weather convinced them

David McNew/Getty Images

People cited their experience of warmer temperatures as a major influence in their views of climate change.

Most Americans now say that the climate is changing, according to the National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change (PDF). Nearly two out of three people (62%) answered “yes” to the question, “Is there solid evidence that the average temperature on Earth has been getting warmer over the past four decades?” The primary reasons they gave for that answer? About one in four said it’s because they’ve observed warmer temperatures, and an identical 24% because they’ve observed weather changes — and the survey was taken last fall, before this year’s generally mild winter in the U.S. had entered the national chatter (we recall a recent tweet from NOAA saying that Midland, TX had logged more snowfall this winter than New York, Boston and Philadelphia combined). Continue reading

Climate’s 10 Seconds of Fame

Reporting on climate change sinks to its lowest level since 2005

Empty stalls outside the UN climate talks the night before the opening. (Photo:Gretchen Weber)

When Al Gore lamented recently in the Huffington Post that “the media has failed to appropriately cover the climate crisis,” he was talking about the relatively small amount of science that made it into reporting about the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen.

But it looks like in 2010, the issue wasn’t so much a lack of science in the reporting, as the lack of reporting in general.  An analysis by the Daily Climate that’s been making the rounds, finds that in 2010 coverage among major media outlets of climate change dropped to its lowest level since 2005.  Between 2009 and 2010, it dropped 30%, according to the Daily Climate tally. Continue reading

A Call for Better Climate Awareness

Marjorie Sun’s story on climate education efforts by science museums is particularly timely, since the legislative landscape in Washington is most likely to become more hostile to climate science, when Congress turns over next month (see John Broder’s post for the New York Times, for more on the Senate’s highest-profile climate contrarian).

Part of the "Feeling the Heat" exhibit at Birch Aquarium, near San Diego. (Photo: Birch Aquarium)

One of the educators interviewed in her radio feature, Tom Bowman, was among the signatories of a letter published in the journal Science shortly after the story first aired on KQED’s Quest. Bowman’s firm helps develop climate exhibits, including those at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Birch Aquarium in La Jolla.

The letter declared that “Because the potential consequences of climate change are so high, the science community has an obligation to help people, organizations, and governments make informed decisions.”

The missive went on to call for a major initiative among scientists to improve public understanding of climate issues:

“The initiative must make concerted efforts to provide people, organizations, and governments with critical information, to address misperceptions, and to counter misinformation and deception.” Continue reading

Taking Climate Education to the Streets

Science museums, aquariums and other “informal educators” walk a tightrope when it comes to climate change.

By Marjorie Sun

The California Academy of Sciences and the Monterey Bay Aquarium have a big advantage that some educational institutions in other parts of the country don’t: most of their visitors — who tend to be Californians — believe that climate change is real. That means their global warming exhibits can focus on solutions, for example, rather than laying out the basics of atmospheric science.

Californians’ concern about climate change has translated into political support for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. According to survey results released in July by the Public Policy Institute of California, two-thirds of Californians strongly back the pioneering state law known as AB 32. The law requires a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. And the recent defeat of Proposition 23 by 22 percentage points would appear to affirm that support.

Californians appear to buck some national trends on climate change issues. A declining number of Americans say there is solid evidence that the world is warming. The number dropped from 79% in 2006, when AB 32 was passed, to 59% this year, according to a survey just released by the Pew Research Center.  The number who think scientists agree that the world is warming due to human activity fell from 59% to 44% over the same period. Even more telling, perhaps, is that the ratio of “yes” to “no” answers to the latter question for Republicans (30:58) is almost the mirror image of that for Democrats (59:32).

New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer details in a recent, in-depth article that billionaires David and Charles Koch, titans of the oil industry, have been spending millions of dollars waging a covert disinformation campaign to thwart climate change legislation in the United States.

Aboard the Bio-Bus

A local organization has launched a mobile counter-offensive. The Alliance for Climate Education, a non-profit based in Oakland, has created a hip, multi-media presentation spiced with animation and rock music to reach teens. Think An Inconvenient Truth goes MTV. The alliance has shown it to more than 420,000 high schoolers across the nation in the past year. The presentation teaches teens the basics about climate change and urges them to “do one thing” to fight it.

Alliance staffers also have tricked out an old school bus with clean tech, driving it to schools and museums to showcase renewable technology. The blue bio-bus runs on used cooking oil collected from restaurants. Solar panels on the bus charge cell phones and computers on board.

Unmasking the Cow

The model cow in the Monterey Bay Aquarium climate change exhibit originally appeared with a gas mask, which has since been removed. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Meanwhile, keeping the climate change exhibits up-to-date scientifically is a concern for the museums. At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, outfitting a life-size model cow with a gas mask was prompted in part by a 2006 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization. The FAO study said that industrial production of livestock in general, including cattle, pigs, and poultry, accounts for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions. But another FAO study released in April — about the same time the climate change exhibit opened — examined the GHG emissions for the dairy industry alone, not beef production. It concluded that dairy production contributes just four percent of emissions. The study (PDF download), along with howls of protests from the local dairy industry, helped convince the aquarium to unmask the Holstein.

One last tidbit about interactive exhibits: One of the most popular — common to the Academy and the Monterey Bay Aquarium — is surprisingly low-tech. Thousands of visitors write on comment cards about what they can do to fight climate change and hang them on display boards there. One of them, in a child’s handwriting, read “Reduce, reuse, recycle and homework is bad for the environment.”

Hear Marjorie’s companion radio feature on KQED’s Quest radio program, Monday morning. A version of this post also appears on the Quest blog.

Apocalypse Not: Study Says Cool Down the Climate Message

Image from an Envrionmental Defense Fund TV campaign

Remember that TV ad that represented climate change as an oncoming train? Polar bears falling from the sky and spattering on the sidewalk? If a new study from sociologists at UC Berkeley is any indication, they probably backfired.

Sociology Professor Rob Willer says more than two years of testing with college students and subjects recruited over the Internet reveal that if projections of severe climate impacts clash with a person’s fundamental view of a safe and stable world, that person is less likely to act on it.

“When you underscore potential ways out of the problem,” says Willer, “Then you can communicate the facts of climate change without threatening people so much that they deny the problem.

Willer says that repeatedly exposing subjects to “negative” messages about climate change affected more than their personal motivation to address it; their belief in the science behind the message was actually eroded. And he says that people in the study tended to be put off by “scary” messages, regardless of their politics.

As part of the negative messaging, Willer showed subjects the “train” spot produced by the Environmental Defense Fund. Willer says it was not a motivator in his study, even though it ends with the message “There’s still time.”

The study’s conclusions came as no surprise to “messaging” experts at the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change conference, wrapping up today in Sacramento.

Anne Dougherty, Manager of Social & Behavioral Research at Oakland-based Opinion Dynamics Corporation, says that motivational messaging in general should steer clear of tones that are bleak, catastrophic, punitive or scary. “There is this tendency to disassociate with messaging when the messaging is bleak,” said Dougherty. “People, in order to be inspired to take action, need to feel a bit optimistic about what they’re going to be doing.”

Dougherty’s company has been involved in developing energy conservation campaigns in California, such as “Flex Your Power” and the upcoming “Engage 360” campaign, sponsored by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Willer says his study focused on personal actions, not what the government should do about global warming. His work will appear in the journal Psychological Science early next year.

Meanwhile, what motivates you? What doesn’t?

Candidates Question Climate Science

Third-party candidates for governor call the science of global warming “junk science” and “a scam at worst.”

Photo: Craig Miller

While Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown debate the pros and cons of the state’s global warming law (AB 32) and the ballot initiative that would suspend it (Proposition 23), two of the four “alternative” candidates interviewed this morning on KQED’s Forum program, attacked the science behind California’s climate change policy.

“I’ve become convinced that the whole thing is an exaggeration at best, and a scam at worst,” said Dale Odgen, the Libertarian Party candidate.  “The science has been fudged in order to get grants for people.  People like Al Gore have used it to become even more wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.” Continue reading

“Merchants of Doubt” Traces Roots of Denial

smokeA new book asserts that the very same group of Cold War ideologues who banded together to spread doubt about the link between tobacco and cancer also spearheaded the first efforts to discredit climate scientists as they began warning about the effects of anthropogenic global warming.

In “Merchants of Doubt,”  science historians Naomi Oreskes of UC San Diego and Erik Conway of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at CalTech, argue that the seeds of the current groundswell of climate change “denial,” and an assault on science in general, were planted decades ago.

The authors say it started with a handful of respected scientists, who, motivated by free-market political ideology and funded by the tobacco industry, worked to cast doubt on well-established scientific knowledge.

Conway discussed the book last Friday with Greg Dalton of Climate One at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco.

“One of the strategies the tobacco companies decided to pursue in the early 1990′s is the undermining of science, broadly,” said Conway. “They began to use their PR apparatus not just to undermine the science of tobacco and cancer and health effects, but…to attack all regulatory sciences in general.”

That strategy was one of the motivations for the book, said Conway.  “We wondered, ‘What effect will this have on science when it’s being under continuous corporate assault, especially in a society that is very dependent on science and engineering?”

According to Conway, one of the scientists central to the tobacco industry’s efforts was Fred Seitz, a physicist and former president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.   Others were the prominent physicists Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow, and William Nierenberg, who was once the director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.  All were associated with a conservative think tank, the George C. Marshall Institute.  In the 1990′s, said Conway, “the Marshall Institute decided to make its main issue the effort to cast doubt on global warming.”

Conway said that the scientists were motivated by their experiences during the Cold War and the political beliefs they developed during that time.

“Really, this is about opposition to government regulation,” he said. “We don’t think the scientists were in this for the money. They were working for the tobacco industry, to defend Star Wars (the Reagan administration’s space defense plan), to prevent acid rain and global warming regulation.” Conway says these “merchants of doubt” were pursuing “a political ideology to defend market fundamentalism and their political beliefs, not because they were in the pay for big money.”

The authors argue that the legacy of this Cold War ideology lives on in today’s climate change “denial” discourse.  The seeds planted then continue to sprout, they contend, despite the fact that today’s “merchants” are far less influential within the scientific community.

“There is a second generation, but one that is not nearly as respected,” said Conway. “The think tank network  now exists and has been institutionalized and is self-perpetuating. They simply hire their own people who have some credentials, rarely actually climate scientists, who continue to do that kind of thing.  But they don’t have nearly the kind of stature that Nierenberg did or that Fred Seitz had.”

A 2008 study also makes a link between conservative think tanks an climate skepticism.  The report, published in the journal Environmental Politics, found that of 141 English-language, “environmentally sceptical” books published between 1972 and 2005, 92% have links to conservative think tanks, 90% of which, the report found, “espouse environmental scepticism.”

What Will it Take?

An interesting confluence of events this week: A Senate committee votes down a contentious amendment to the “climate” bill, a new Stanford survey shows rising concern about global warming, and pundits gather in Pasadena to sort through it all.

87496035The survey, conducted by Jon Krosnick’s Political Psychology Research Group with funding from the National Science Foundation, suggests that some climate pollsters have been getting it wrong. About three in four respondents to the Stanford poll (74%) acknowledge that the “world’s temperature” is rising, and though they appear to be divided on the cause (with a slight edge to human causation), roughly the same majority (76%) favor federal limits on “the amount of greenhouse  gasses thought to cause global warming.” Krosnick summarized some of his findings in an editorial for the New York Times.

Meanwhile eminent climate scientists, social scientists and journalists assembled in SoCal this week, in part to ask the question: “What will it take to precipitate meaningful policy responses to climate change?” The answer from author Stewart Brand was succinct: “It takes warfare.” Brand was part of a panel at “Moving By Degrees,” a day-long forum hosted by American Public Media’s Marketplace program. Brand, who describes himself as an “ecopragmatist,” has concluded that when the planet’s “carrying capacity” is strained to the point where nations and peoples are fighting over dwindling resources, only then will coordinated international action begin in earnest.

Brand’s dim view was shared by physicist-turned-blogger Joe Romm, who said that while current US policy is driven by “denial,” he sees a coming shift in which people move “from denial to desperation.” That, says Romm, will be the catalyst. “Denial makes easy things hard and desperation makes hard things easy,” he said. Romm says he expects the desperation phase to set in about a decade from now, when extreme weather events and other likely manifestations of climate change intensify and become more frequent. Romm challenged the notion that technology will provide an easy solution to climate change and defied the gathering to come up with one “game-changing” technological breakthrough in energy, over the past three decades.

New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin points to a graph that shows the relatively low level of US R&D funding devoted to energy.

New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin points to a graph that shows the relatively low level of US R&D funding devoted to energy (it's the little green squiggle in the middle). Photo: Craig Miller

Romm and Brand were joined by two high-profile climate scientists, Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore National Lab and Michael Mann, who directs the Earth System Science Center at Penn State; social scientists Naomi Oreskes of UC San Diego and Eileen Claussen, President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and Strategies for the Global Environment; as well as commentators from business and investment groups.

Most agreed that “putting a price on carbon,” through cap-and-trade or some other means, is an essential, if overdue policy step. Analyst Bruce Kahn of Deutsche Bank issued a plea for a coherent policy on carbon pricing. “You can’t put a policy in place today and change it tomorrow,” said Kahn. “A carbon price needs longevity and certainty so companies will add it to their business models.” Once that happens, Kahn said there’s “a massive amount of capital out there looking for a place to go,” and that investment capital will flow to where stable policies exist. Mindy Lubber, president of the CERES investor group, went a step further: “We are losing the jobs and opportunities right now in the clean tech sector,” said Lubber, “because we don’t have the right market signals in place.”

Brand also had some advice for environmentalists, which he says have become “the cohort of the Left:” Brand said “We need to de-tribalize,” and he offered that “The best thing Al Gore could do is shed the Democratic party.”

All of the day’s sessions are archived at the Marketplace conference website.

Polls Underestimate Climate Change Concerns, Study Finds

A historic water marker left high and dry at Lake Powell in April 2010. (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

A historic water marker left high and dry at Lake Powell in April 2010. (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

If you’ve been paying attention at all over the last year, you’ve no doubt heard that Americans don’t care very much about climate change.  Pew polls, Yale polls, Gallup polls–all have found in the past year that climate change and the environment rank pretty much dead last when it comes to issues people care about in the United States.  But new research out of Stanford suggests that the truth might actually be a bit more complicated, and that Americans might be a lot more concerned about climate change than these polls indicate.

As it turns out, it’s all in the asking.

Jon Krosnick, a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, recently found that the standard “Most Important Problem” question, which has been a staple of polls and surveys for generations, might not capture the true nature of public sentiment toward environmental issues.

Krosnick has been studying the public’s perception of climate change since the 1990s. He said that during that time his findings have continually indicated that “huge majorities” agreed that the planet is heating up and that the government should take action, but that global warming was repeatedly left off the list when people were asked what was the country’s most important problem.

It was a Stanford undergraduate, Samuel Larson, who suggested that perhaps how the question was being asked was influencing the answers, said Krosnick.  Maybe, Larson postulated, if the question were opened up to consider the world, rather than just the United States, and if it asked about the future, rather than today, people’s answers might reflect something different.

In fact, their answers changed dramatically, researchers found.  In the May 2010 study, the team analyzed the results of two polls from the fall of 2009 that addressed the issue in two distinct ways.   When asked, “What do you think is the most important issue facing the world today?” about half (49%) of respondents in the first poll answered “the economy” or “unemployment,” while only one percent mentioned global warming or the environment.  In the second poll, the responses were 54% economy and two percent environment.

But when the question was re-framed as “What do you think is the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?” the results swung dramatically.  In the first poll, 25% said the environment or global warming, and 10% said the economy.  In the second poll the results were 21% and 16%, respectively.

For specific data on Californians and their views on environmental issues and climate policy, see last summer’s PPIC report: Californians and the Environment.

California Scientists Join Climate Appeal

More than 50 California-based scientists are among those who signed a letter protesting “McCarthy-like” attacks on climate scientists in the United States.

The letter was published in this week's issue of the journal Science.

The letter was published in this week's issue of the journal Science.

The letter, circulated as a kind of petition to selected members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), is both a defense of established climate science and a counter-offensive against an increasingly vocal community that rejects that science and some of the proposed policy responses. The letter asserts that the signatories are “deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular.”

Steering the core group of scientists behind the letter (full text and list of signatories available as a PDF download) was Peter Gleick, who heads the Pacific Institute in Oakland. Gleick, whose primary focus is on water policy issues, has been an outspoken defender of the prevailing climate science and has, on occasion, answered critics on this blog. Gleick declines credit as the sole author, saying it was written by a group of a half-dozen co-authors.

Other excerpts:

“Many recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers, are typically driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence.”

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other scientific assessments of climate change, which involve thousands of scientists producing massive and comprehensive reports, have, quite expectedly and normally, made some mistakes. When errors are pointed out, they are corrected. But there is nothing remotely identified in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change…”

The letter concludes by calling for “an end to McCarthy- like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them.”

A total of 255 scientists signed the letter, which was published this week in the journal Science (available by subscription only). High-profile signers include Paul Ehrlich and Stephen Schneider, both based at Stanford.

Perhaps just as interesting as who signed the letter is who did not. Missing are several luminaries in California climate science circles, such as Dan Cayan and Richard Somerville of the Scripps Institution, and Ben Santer at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Santer has participated in media calls organized to defend findings of the IPCC. Santer has served as an IPCC lead author.

Gleick explained to me that the letter was circulated only to NAS members listed in climate-related disciplines. From a check of the proprietary NAS member database, it appears that Cayan and Santer are not members. Also missing from the signatories is Stanford’s Chris Field, who is engaged in preparing the next IPCC report. Field has been an NAS member since 2001.

According to Gleick, a few declined to sign as they were “involved in ongoing assessments” for NAS when the letter was circulated and wished to avoid any apparent conflicts of interest. Gleick admits that scientists walk a precarious line when they cross over from research into activism, but says sometimes it’s justified. “It’s important that scientists speak out when an issue is as important as climate is,” he said.