What do people truly believe when it comes to climate change?

Nationwide polls show that more and more people believe that humans are responsible for increasing greenhouse gases and thus altering our climate — including unusual changes in weather patterns, rising sea levels and disruptions in the oceanic food web.

I keep waiting for public opinion to reach a critical mass, so that government officials feel compelled to take serious actions to get climate change under control.

Instead, we see President Trump ordering rollbacks on regulations designed to reduce emissions from coal-fired plants and automobiles. The result will be a greater rate of climate change.

“Americans want reliable energy that they can afford,” declared Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announcing why the Trump administration supports greater carbon dioxide emissions.

The rollback helps Trump fulfill his campaign promise to revitalize the coal industry — although coal plants continue to close as a result of competition from cheaper natural-gas and renewable-energy sources. Reporter Ellen Knickermeyer’s covered the story for The Associated Press.

Gina McCarthy, who headed the EPA during the Obama administration, was quoted as saying that Trump officials have “made painfully clear that they are incapable of rising to the challenge and tackling this crisis. They have shown a callous disregard for EPA’s mission, a pattern of climate science denial and an inexcusable indifference to the consequences of climate change.”

A large majority of Americans now believe that global warming is taking place, and 62 percent say global warming is caused mostly by human activities, according to an ongoing survey by Yale University and George Mason University.

One reason for the shift in public opinion may be the increasing number of extreme events, such as drought, forest fires, floods and hurricanes, which are influenced by the worldwide change in temperatures. Disasters help to make the somewhat abstract idea of global warming more tangible in people’s minds, wrote reporter Umair Irfan in an article in Vox magazine.

Irfan quoted Anthony Leiserowitz, who helped write the Yale report: “You can experience a drought, flood or hurricane, but you can’t experience global temperatures going up.”

A new study of six Colorado communities following severe flooding in 2016 and 2017 found that widespread flooding across a community caused more people to blame the event on climate change. In contrast, flooding over a small area rarely brings climate change to mind.

“How our community or neighborhood fares — the damages it suffers — may have a stronger and more lasting effect on our climate beliefs than individual impacts do,” said Elizabeth A. Albright, assistant professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, as quoted in a Duke University news release. The study by Albright and Deseral Crow of the University of Colorado, Denver, was published online by the journal Climatic Change.

As attitudes change about the effects of climate change, the number of outright “deniers” has been shrinking. Politically, Democrats are becoming more outspoken, while more Republicans acknowledge that there is a problem, as Irfan describes in his story.

Even Wheeler, the EPA administrator leading the reversal of climate-change regulations, expressed concern about the future during his Senate confirmation hearings. On a scale from 1 to 10, “with 10 being you stay awake at night worrying about it,” Wheeler said he would rank climate change as an 8.

“Really?” responded an incredulous Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who asked the question, knowing that Wheeler’s actions don’t seem to match his concerns.

Clearly, it is one thing to be concerned about climate change and another thing to do something about it.

Public-opinion polls could help politicians decide if their constituents are ready for actions to address climate change. But the polls themselves may not provide reliable answers, because it all depends on how the survey questions are asked, said Matthew Motta of Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the polling issue.

“People’s beliefs about climate change play an important role in how they think about solutions to it,” said Motta in a news release about his latest study. “If we can’t accurately measure those beliefs, we may be under- or over-estimating their support for different solutions. If we want to understand why the public supports or opposes different policy solutions to climate change, we need to understand what their views are on the science.”

For an example of a simple question that can result in different answers, consider the various ways of asking this question, as described in supplemental materials:
Which of these three statements about the Earth’s temperature comes closest to your view?

  1. The Earth is getting warmer mostly because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels.
  2. The Earth is getting warmer mostly because of natural patterns in the Earth’s environment .
  3. There is no solid evidence that the Earth is getting warmer.
  4. Don’t know

The authors concluded from their research that if pollsters remove the option “don’t know” from the list of answers, it tends to push responders toward answers that support the idea of human-caused climate change even when the responders are not convinced.

When an explanatory paragraph precedes the answers, it tends to promote certain answers even more, as in this example:

Global warming refers to the recent and ongoing rise in global average temperature near the Earth’s surface. Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gasses is the primary cause of global warming. Global warming, in turn, is causing climate patterns to change. Climate change includes major changes in temperature, precipitation, wind patterns, or other effects that occur over several decades or longer.

Which of these three statements about the Earth’s temperature comes closest to your view?

  1. The Earth is getting warmer mostly because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels.
  2. The Earth is getting warmer mostly because of natural patterns in the Earth’s environment.
  3. There is no solid evidence that the Earth is getting warmer.
  4. Don’t know

Again the presence or absence of the “Don’t know” option can alter the survey results.

Another method of polling is the agree-disagree approach. Consider the explanatory paragraph above followed by a statement and agree-disagree options:

The Earth is getting warmer mostly because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels

  1. Strongly agree
  2. Moderately agree
  3. Slightly agree
  4. Neither agree nor disagree
  5. Slightly disagree
  6. Moderately disagree
  7. Strongly disagree
  8. Don’t know

In this case, the inclusion of an explanatory paragraph tends to tilt the answer one way and the “Don’t know” option the other way. The authors of the study also discuss the concept of “acquiescence bias,” in which respondents are more likely to “agree” with a statement to avoid appearing disagreeable or being forced to think deeply about a complicated subject.

In the study, the so-called “Pew Style,” based on 1) clear answers, 2) no explanatory text and 3) an option for “don’t know,” resulted in a 50/50 split between those who believe in human-caused climate change and those who don’t. That’s the lowest percentage of any approach.

The researchers found that the greatest support for the idea of human-caused climate change came when using the agree-disagree approach, including an explanatory paragraph and avoiding the “don’t know” option. The result was 71 percent, compared to 50 percent.

These numbers — 50 and 71 percent — don’t actually represent the beliefs of the general population, because the researchers did not survey a representative sample.

This is a lesson I learned long ago when reviewing public-opinion surveys: Don’t just look at the summary put together by pollsters; look at the questions and the possible answers. Do they fairly allow alternative views to be represented?

While public opinion is important, many reasonable people are suspicious of polls, especially one-time polls on complicated subjects. It is better to look at trends, using polls that repeat the same questions over time.

Several studies have shown how difficult it is to change people’s minds about climate change. The best approach, researchers say, is to blend scientific facts into stories about people — whether it be families affected by disaster, scientists working to understand the forces of nature, people who have changed their minds about climate change, and so on.

Most of us have heard the suggestion of contacting our congressional representatives if we want change at high levels. I’ve always wondered how true that might be. I can only comment that during a recent trip to Washington, D.C., many of our lawmakers stressed that they truly are interested in hearing from their constituents, whether through a letter, email or a phone message, or at a town hall meeting. It’s definitely something to consider.

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