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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.

The Heated Debate Over Temperatures

87583224As the war over warming perception spills into a new decade, the last month of 2009 provided fresh ammo for the prevailing view. According to a preliminary report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the “noughties” may have been the warmest decade on record.

And despite the rare sprinkling of snow we woke up to one December morning in the Bay Area, the report also says that 2009 will likely go down as one of the hottest years in modern history. Based on climate data from January to October, the WMO says that 2009 will likely be the fifth warmest since scientists began keeping records in 1850.

If that last claim seems improbable, you’re likely in Canada or the United States: The data shows that every continent but North America saw above-average temperatures in 2009, and that parts of Asia and Africa experienced their warmest year yet.

Dean Moosavi, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, chalked the apparent discrepancy up to the Pacific ocean phase known as La Nina, and said it’s important to note the difference between weather and climate. “Snow in Houston this week, for example, is not proof of the absence of global warming any more than a large drought in the summer is proof that global warming is occurring,” Moosavi wrote in an email to Climate Watch. “You have to look over much longer periods of time…decades at the least before you can see a climatic trend of significance.”

This is perhaps a good place to acknowledge the oft-heard claim that the planet has actually been cooling down for more than a decade. In an article published in NOAA’s online magazine ClimateWatch (not affiliated with KQED Climate Watch), David Easterling of NOAA’s Climatic Data Center explains the statistical quirk that produces that mirage.

But Moosavi says he’s not quite ready to make a pronouncement. “I am not yet convinced that the 2000′s were warmer than the 90′s at this point,” Mossavi wrote. “Given the political and economic stakes of a statement of this type…I would be very cautious before declaring the 2000′s the warmest decade.”

Stanford’s Mark Jacobson, on the other hand, was less equivocal: “As 8 of the 10 warmest years in the history of surface measurements are in the 2000′s, it is clear that the 2000s was the warmest decade on record,” he wrote in an email.

The WMO findings come on the heels of a pair of reports that indicate that despite the global recession, average temperatures are on track to rise between 4 and 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

For some perspective, the California Climate Change Center’s 2006 report on the risks of global warming predicts that a 6 C increase would have a devastating effect on the state. The report projects that a 10.5 F increase (just a little under 6 C) would result in up to 100 extra days of “extreme heat” in Los Angles and Sacramento, a 90% reduction in the Sierra snowpack and a 2-to-3-foot increase in sea levels.

The half-dozen climate scientists contacted for this post agreed that the 6 C prediction was within the realm of possibility, and most had the same answer when asked how the world should combat this risk. Stanford professor Ken Caldeira chose to respond in capital letters: “WE HAVE TO ACT NOW.”

“The question isn’t so much whether we need to take action this year or next, but rather how much more expensive and difficult are the solution and the impacts, if we delay,” Chris Field, director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology, said. “Delaying action on climate is sort of like delaying action on paying your credit card bill. You may get by for a few months, but the problems get worse through time and more expensive to address.”