Climate Concern Flags Amid Support for Policies


One possible outcome "badge" from KQED's Facebook survey, "A Matter of Degree"

Despite being far less concerned about climate change than they were a year ago, a large majority of Americans supports the the passage of federal climate and energy policies, according to a national survey released last week by researchers at Yale and George Mason Universities.  (The full survey is available as a PDF on the Yale Project on Climate Change website.)

More than 1,000 adults were surveyed in late December and early January, and their responses compared with the results of a similar survey from the fall of 2008.

Key findings include:

  • Only 50% of Americans now say they are “somewhat” or “very worried” about global warming, a 13-point decrease
  • The percentage of Americans who think global warming is happening has dropped 14 points, to 57%
  • The percentage of Americans who think global warming is caused mostly by humans activities dropped 10 points, to 47%.

These results echo a similar survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, which found that between April 2008 and October 2009, the proportion of Americans who believed there was solid evidence for global warming dropped 14 points, from 71% to 57%.

While both reports indicate a flagging of public concern about climate change in general, the Yale/GMU report finds that public support for the passage of federal climate and energy policies is strong, even across party lines. Majorities of Republicans and Democrats surveyed support renewable energy research, tax rebates for people buying fuel-efficient vehicles or solar panels, and regulating CO2 as a pollutant.

“The good news is that even though some Americans are becoming more skeptical that global warming is happening, nevertheless, there is still support for some of the basic climate policies,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change and one of the study’s principal investigators.

But the poll also revealed low levels of awareness about the policy debate in general: 60% of Americans surveyed said they’d heard “nothing at all” about cap-and-trade legislation, while just 12% said they’d heard “a lot.”  When the concept of carbon permit trading was explained to survey respondents, 58% supported the policy, but that support dropped to 40% when respondents were told that one hypothetical outcome would be to drive up household energy costs by $15 a month.  Support rebounded to 66% if a yearly household bonus of $180 were supplied to offset higher energy costs.

Bipartisan support for some climate-related policies amid fading concern about climate change, is not as contradictory as it might seem.  While some respondents approve of supporting research funding for renewable energy technologies as efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, others support this policy on national security and energy-independence grounds.  Leiserowitz noted that while support for renewable energy research has been high for years, the current public support for cap and trade could “go either way” in the near future, depending on how the public debate plays out.

Climate Watch has partnered with the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication to create our climate survey A Matter of Degree, which is available on the Climate Watch website and on Facebook.   A Matter of Degree uses data from the Yale and GMU researchers’ Global Warming’s Six Americas survey to help survey respondents determine where they fall on the spectrum of American beliefs about climate change.

Closing the Climate Psychology Gap

A Matter of Degree is a survey of attitudes about climate change developed in partnership with Yale and George Mason Universities.

A Matter of Degree is a survey of attitudes developed by Climate Watch, in partnership with Yale and George Mason Universities.

Keep emotions out of it and meet the uncertainties head-on. Those tips are among the advice offered in a new guide for climate change communicators. Published by the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University,  “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication” is a 54-page guide available on the CRED website that attempts to help educators, journalists, and scientists communicate more clearly about the complicated, politically-charged subject of climate change.   The gist?  It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.  Not that this is an earth-shattering revelation but it’s a good reminder to those tasked with conveying detailed scientific information to a general audience that might not have the time, context, or desire to fully process the message.

From the introduction:

… in order for climate science information to be fully absorbed by audiences, it must be actively communicated with appropriate language, metaphor, and analogy; combined with narrative storytelling; made vivid through visual imagery and experiential scenarios; balanced with scientific information; and delivered by trusted messengers in group settings.

This guide speaks to the messengers.  Key recommendations include common-sense strategies such as knowing your audience, getting their attention, and being sure to translate scientific data into concrete experience.    The guide also stresses avoiding the overuse of emotional appeals reasoning that while they may work in the short term, they could backfire down the road because people have a “finite pool of worry” and repeated emotional appeals could lead to “emotional numbing” and apathy.  Most of these recommendations sound useful for all kinds of communication — not just about climate change.

One point, however, seems especially relevant to climate change; the recommendation to directly and precisely address scientific and climatic uncertainties. In other words, meet the unknowns head-on but keep them in perspective:

Climate science uncertainty often conveys the mistaken impression that scientists are hopelessly confused about this complicated subject, when in fact scientific uncertainties about exactly how much warmer the planet will be in 100 years does not change the very high confidence scientists have that human-made greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet and are likely to continue doing so.

The guide stresses the importance of being very clear about where the uncertainties lie, because they are easy to overstate or understate, which leads to more confusion.  A particularly interesting resource is Table 4: Words with Different Meanings to Scientists and the General Public.  The table itself is a little confusing, but it gives recognition to the “language barrier” between scientists and “laymen,” a key to getting a clear message across.

A study published last month by the Pew Center for People and the Press found that the percentage of American adults who think that there is solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades has declined over the past year, from 71% to 57%. The proportion of Americans who say global temperatures are rising as a result of human activity, such as burning fossil fuels, shrank from 47% to 36% in the same period. It’s an indication that those who have taken on the mantle of communicating the current science can use a little help.

Attitudes about Climate Change are Shifting. Is Yours?


One possible Facebook results "badge" from KQED's "Matter of Degree" survey

Coinciding with the release of a Climate Watch Facebook survey that explores attitudes toward climate change, a new national poll by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press shows that the percentage of people who believe that climate change is a reality has decreased significantly in the past year.  Last year, 71%  nationwide believed the Earth was warming, regardless of the cause. This year the number is 57%.

Yesterday, Andrew Kohut, who directs the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, and Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Project on Climate Change joined Neal Conan on Talk of the Nation to discuss changing attitudes about climate change. (You can listen to the 30-minute segment or read the transcript here.)

Kohut said that the economy most likely plays a large role in the drop.  The number of respondents who assigned a top priority to protecting the environment dropped from 56% to 41% in this year’s study, while the proportion who chose dealing with the economy rose to 85%.  That squares with another part of the survey, in which fewer people said they were willing to protect the environment if it meant slowing economic growth or higher energy prices.

“I think what happens,” said Kohut on yesterday’s program, “is if you’re giving [the environment] a low priority, people will sometimes develop a rationale for that low priority. So you have more people saying, ‘Well, maybe it’s not all that serious’…”

Kohut also pointed out that the cool summer experienced by much of the country this year could have played a role in the apparent flagging acceptance of climate change.

The Pew report, released last week, shows a dramatic partisan split in attitudes toward climate change.  Just thirty-two percent of conservative Republicans believe there is solid evidence for global warming, compared with 83% of liberal Democrats, according to Pew.

Leiserowitz discussed his research into attitudes about climate change, which was done in collaboration with the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

“This research really came from the recognition that Americans don’t speak with a single voice about climate change,” said Leiserowitz. “And what we found, in fact, is that there are six different Americas within America on this particular issue.” National surveys of attitudes toward climate change often yield very different results from polls in California, where there has been greater acceptance of the warming concept in general, as well as the role of human activity in it.

The original Yale-George Mason study, called “Global Warming’s Six Americas,” divides survey-takers into six psychographic groups: Alarmed (18%), Concerned (33%), Cautious (19%), Disengaged (12%), Doubtful (11%), and Dismissive (7%).

Climate Watch teamed up with Leiserowitz and his colleague Ed Maibach from GMU, to create an online version of this survey, called “A Matter of Degree.”  You can take the survey on KQED’s website or on Facebook.  Both versions allow you to compare your results to those of the original study as well as all online survey-takers.  With the Facebook version you can also compare your results with your Facebook “friends” who have already taken the survey and can invite new friends to take the survey.  The Facebook application also features a discussion area where respondents can share thoughts about the climate change and the survey itself, and there are links to learn more about each profile “type”.

What’s your climate profile?  Take the survey and find out.

BK Franchise Serves Up Some “Baloney”

I know: This didn’t happen in California, so why mention it? Well, sometimes stories come in that just seem to crystallize the persistent (some polling would suggest growing) public division over climate change and this is a good example.

When signs on Burger King outlets started opining that “Global warming is baloney,” a Memphis reporter decided to check it out. His exchanges with the local burgermeister and the parent company make for pretty amusing reading.

Interesting that while polls taken within the last year have indicated flagging faith in the prevailing view of climate scientists that the world is warming, a spring poll by the Pew Research Center showed 59% of Americans supporting some kind of cap on carbon emissions. Though still sharply divided along party lines, that could indicate that some kind of reluctant consensus is forming around the issue.

Gone: An Eloquent Voice on Climate Change

I was unaccountably saddened by the news today that Philip Clapp had died. I say “unaccountably” because I really didn’t know the man. I had been in the same room with him exactly one time, when he spoke to a group of Knight Fellows in College Park, MD, right after Memorial Day.

But of all the nearly two dozen speakers paraded before us over the four-day climate change seminar, Clapp stood out. He was Deputy Managing Director of the Pew Environment Group, an outgrowth of the National Environmental Trust and to say that he knew his stuff would be an enormous understatement. He held an impressive–almost singular, it seemed to me–footing on the treacherous ground of climate science and policy. Speaking without a single note, he had a way of distilling the topic down to its stark realities. It was riveting–and a little scary. But listening to him, I didn’t get the sense that Clapp was some sort of professional alarmist. I did get the sense that he could see our high-carbon future with unusual clarity–and I left the room glad that he was on the job.

Philip Clapp died in Amsterdam at the age of 54. David Roberts posted this obituary for Grist.