Framing Science

Here are the major implications from our study analyzing twenty years of American public opinion data on global warming:

1. Global warming skeptics continue to make an impact on public opinion.

As we describe in the article, although a strong majority of Americans say that they believe that global warming is real, that temperatures are rising, and that the release of carbon dioxide is a cause, the public remains relatively uncertain about whether the majority of scientists agree on the matter. As long as the public remains confused about where the experts stand, public support for policy action is likely to be weak and volatile.

Moreover, the article does not include break downs across polls by partisanship, but as Gallup and Pew polls from 2007 show, there still remains a “two Americas” of climate change perceptions. Over the past year, Democrats have become almost universally concerned and worried whereas a majority of Republicans remain skeptical of the science and the urgency of the issue.

It’s a result of two different sets of political leaders offering contrasting interpretations that are then relayed via an ever more ideologically fragmented media system.

2. As long as global warming is a relatively low priority for the public, it will be a relatively low priority for policymakers and the news media.

In the aggregate, Americans might say that they are concerned about global warming, but compared to many other policy problems, the issue still remains among the bottom tier of priorities. Even in comparison to other environmental issues, global warming sits at the lower end of worries. As long as global warming continues to lag as a relative concern for Americans, few policymakers will feel an incentive to spend political capital in support of meaningful policy action. Moreover, the issue itself will remain a second tier news agenda item.

3. Global warming remains very much a public communication problem.

Scientists, environmental groups, and some Democratic leaders have been very good at mobilizing a certain baseline level of urgency, but if the rest of the public is going to be activated, new media platforms, opinion leaders, and frames will have to be employed. For more, see the recent articles published at Science and at the Washington Post

Comments

  1. #1 Roger Pielke, Jr.
    August 30, 2007

    Hi Matt- Congrats on the paper it is a very useful compilation! A few reactions to your interpretation of the polls.

    You have not demonstrated any influence of “skeptics” on opinion. You overlook your Table 12 which shows using a consistent polling question an increase in those who think most experts think that global warming is happening from 46% to 65%.

    Either way, it is not clear that the public’s views of scientific agree are at all related to (a) their views on global warming, or (b) support for policy action. Your Tables 9, 11 shows that 75-85% of the public think climate change is real. Further, at the end of your paper are a slew of tables showing strong public support for action, including Kyoto.

    Finally, you assert that “As long as the public remains confused about where the experts stand, public support for policy action is likely to be weak and volatile.”

    Yet the data in your paper show exactly the opposite! The most remarkable thing about the data to my eye is how consistent it is over a decade and how little volatility there actually is.

    On 2. you write, “As long as global warming continues to lag as a relative concern for Americans, few policymakers will feel an incentive to spend political capital in support of meaningful policy action.”

    The real lesson to take from this is that the public has always valued the economy, crime, education, and the war higher than global warming. And they likely always will. Do you really think than people in places that have, say, signed on to and are meeting their Kyoto commitments, rank climate higher than economy, crime, war, etc.? Here in the UK the answer is “No”! How do you explain that action in the US requires that climate be a top public priority, but action in th UK does not?

    The challenge is not to agitate people about global warming such that they view it as a crisis, but instead to design policies that are compatible with public values. Trying to take a century-scale issue and tun it into the most important issue in everyone’s eyes is asking too much, and a recipe for asking science to do more that it is capable of.

    See the new book by Norhaus/Shellenberger on this last point.

    You see the challenge of climate change as a communication problem. I don’t. I see it as a challenge of designing policies to go with the grain of people’s values, rather than against that grain.

    Thanks!

  2. #2 Matthew C. Nisbet
    August 30, 2007

    Thanks Roger for these comments.

    The paper actually shows that public perceptions of expert agreement is subject to how the topic is framed in the context of the questions. Similarly for support for Kyoto. I’m not sure if you read the text of our article, but if you skimmed just a couple tables you would miss out on how much variation there is in public opinion due to how a topic is framed.

    I detail these results in this comment and take up the rest of your points on public priority and policy in the next.

    These findings show that public opinion remains volatile and tentative in many areas, and hence, subject to influence by the framing attempts of global warming skeptics. Specific examples from our text follow below.

    As I note in the post above, our study did not examine the partisan differences in these poll trends, but multiple surveys released this year, still show a 30-40 point difference in how Democrats and Republicans view the science and the urgency of the issue. Again, a result of selective framing across political leaders.

    1. On public perceptions of expert consensus, here is what we write, based on the range of poll items that have been asked:

    The public, however, is less certain about where scientists stand on global warming. Examining consistent question wording posed in Cambridge and Gallup surveys, the percentage of the public answering that “most scientists believe that global warming is occurring” increased from 28 percent in 1994 to 46 percent in 1997 to 61 percent in 2001 and then to 65 percent in 2006. During this period, statements from the Inter-Governmental Panel on climate change shifted in 1995 from a tentative “balance of evidence” view that humans were influencing global climate to a much stronger consensus view issued in 2001 (table 12).

    Yet in 2004 and 2005, when PIPA asked about the perception of expert agreement slightly differently, they found that only 43 percent and 52 percent of the public across the two years believed that there was a “consensus among the great majority of scientists that global warming exists and could do significant damage” (table 13). Similarly, according to polls by OSU and ABC News only 35 percent of respondents in 1997, 30 percent in 1998, 35 percent in 2006, and 40 percent in 2007 believed that “most scientists agree with one another about whether or not global warming is happening,” compared to 62 percent, 67 percent and 64 percent of respondents across the two surveys who perceived “a lot of disagreement” (table 14).

    Trust in scientists likely remains a factor in perceptions of the scientific evidence relative to global warming. According to ABC News polls taken in 2006 and 2007, in each year, only 32 percent of Americans answered that they trust the things scientists say about the environment “completely” or “a lot” compared to 24 percent and 27 percent who trust what scientists say “little” or “not at all.” (table 15).

    On policy support for Kyoto, we find similar question wording effects, in part because public knowledge of the specifics of that agreement remains very low.

    Consider surveys conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR), PIPA, and Gallup between 2002 and 2005. In each of the polls, respondents were asked if they believed the United States should participate in the Kyoto agreement on global warming. In the CCFR survey from 2002, and the PIPA surveys from 2004 and 2005, 64 percent, 65 percent, and 73 percent support participation (table 32).

    Yet consider two Gallup surveys that differ slightly in question wording, in both polls only 42 percent of Americans answered that the United States should abide by the treaty, while 36 percent and 35 percent in the two surveys volunteered that they were “unsure” or had “no opinion” (table 33).

    Question wording effects are apparent across other surveys asking respondents to directly evaluate Bush’s 2001 decision to withdraw from Kyoto. In two Gallup questions from April and June of that year, Bush’s rationale that the Kyoto treaty would hurt the economy while demanding too little of developing countries was presented. In these polls, 41 percent and 40 percent said they approved of Bush’s decision to withdraw, while 48 percent disapproved.

    In contrast, when Pew asked in April 2001 about the decision to withdraw from Kyoto and when Gallup queried respondents in a separate July 2001 survey using the same question wording, no rationale was given. In these cases, in the absence of a specified justification, approval of Bush’s decision rested at 25 percent and 32 percent respectively, with disapproval at 47 percent and 51 percent (table 34).

  3. #3 Roger Pielke Jr.
    August 30, 2007

    Hi Matt- A few replies to your 8:47AM comment!

    1. Variation in response due to question framing is of course real but it only says something about response to the framing, not the volitility of public opinion on the topic itself.

    2. Some of the questions are very poorly written for research purposes, e.g., table 13, “”consensus among the great majority of scientists that global warming exists and could do significant damage”. This sentence includes two seprate claims, as well as an undefined term asking the respondent to express how scientists value impacts — “significant damage”!

    3. The simplest and most clearly written statements (e.g., Gallup) show strong public support of the idea that global warming is real and that something should be done about it. I cannot see any other conclusion from this collection of data.

    4. To demonstrate a cause-effect relationship between the propaganda efforts on climate change, and in particular the net effect of skeptical propaganda versus other efforts, would require a far more rigorous experiemental design than simply asserting it. I see no such analysis here, and the stability of public opinion over time would suggest that propaganda (as is well understood in theory, of which I am sure you are aware) does far more to intensify preexisting beliefs than to change them.

  4. #4 Cliff Clafland
    August 30, 2007

    Roger – Going with “the grain of people’s values,” means doing virtually nothing (at least in the U.S.). People’s values today mean high standards of living which includes big houses, big cars, and lots of vacation travel. Kyoto, changing your light bulbs and driving a Prius amount to virtually nothing in addressing the serious problems.

    How are you going to get people to make serious sacrifices to protect the climate? Only one way — through beliefs. Did you see the article in the New Yorker a couple weeks ago about seed banks. They told of how Russian scientists and agricultural workers starved to death, literally, due to lack of food during WWII, even though they had plenty of potential nutrition sitting right before them in the form of the seed collections. Which is like people in India starving in the presence of sacred cows.

    Humans can be led to do anything, given the proper persuasion. But right now, no one is even considering this when it comes to global warming. Instead, they are blithely allowing everyone to think we can save the planet without making any sacrifices. And I’m afraid that’s what you mean when you talk about not going against the grain. It’s certainly the most popular “solution” in the short run. Who doesn’t want to be the bearer of the good news that nobody has to make any sacrifices.

  5. #5 bigTom
    August 30, 2007

    Cliff: another part of the no-sacrifices solutions, is the perception that at least these should be non-controversial, and also that they represent first steps. If we look at the adoption rate of the painless solutions (first steps) we see that they are very low. So in a very real sense we are stuck just trying to get the parade started.

    Now as one who thinks it very likely that we will have good low carbon options (solar, CSS, etc) available within 10-20 years the deferment of new energy infrastructure construction that would arise if the painless steps were vigorously pursued would have a considerable impact on the amount of dirty-tech infrastructure still in the system mid century.

  6. #6 Timo Hameranta
    August 30, 2007

    You ask: “How are you going to get people to make serious sacrifices to protect the climate?”

    Well, when you ask wrong questions you get wrong answers.

    I have two simple considerations:

    - why leave unused the energy which currently is running 80 % of world economy and welfare, and

    - why not simply reduce the extra Co2 from the atmosphere?

    We already have the scientific breakthroughs done to capture CO2 directly from the air.

    If today it costs 50 $ / ton, in 10 years the cost is 50 cents.

    No serious sacrifices needed.

  7. #7 Matthew C. Nisbet
    August 30, 2007

    Roger,

    [A response to your 3:57AM comments on public opinion and policy...]

    I think you are way too quick to discount the important connection between public opinion and climate policy. In part, our contrasting views stem from some differing assumptions and imperatives between our two sub-disciplines. Yet in this case, I believe the reasoning and the evidence supports my position.

    Here’s why, starting with relevant examples from welfare and immigration and then moving to climate:

    –>The research in political science on the general connection between public opinion and policy is mixed. Some argue that it has a powerful influence; others conclude that the influence of public opinion is really only as a constraint on policy; while others see it as having little or no influence. My answer is that it depends. (For an overview, see Shapiro & Jacobs’ chapter in Glynn et al. 1999, Public Opinion. Westview Press.)

    –>Take for example social welfare reform in the mid-1990s, another area where I am currently conducting research. With different goals and motivations in mind, both conservatives and centrist Democrats realized that in order to systematically change welfare policy they needed to invest heavily in a public communication campaign to build support and intensify opinions.

    Indeed, the resulting message campaign successfully redefined welfare for the public as a social crisis. In 1992, only 7% of the public named welfare as the most important problem facing the country, but by 1996, this number had crested to 27%. In fact, by 1996, given magnified media attention and selective interpretations that played on public values and racial attitudes, more than 60% of Americans supported handing responsibility for welfare over to the states, and a similar number supported capping welfare benefits at five years. In August 1996, following successful Congressional passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, more than 80% of the public said that they supported Clinton signing the bill into law.

    Through a public communication campaign, political leaders created the conditions and the impetus for major policy change. Without such strong public support and opinion intensity, policy action would have likely continued to be incremental.

    (Of course, one can debate the merits of the welfare reform legislation, but the influence of public opinion on policy change remains a central factor.)

    –>A more recent policy debate that was driven in part by public opinion was immigration reform. In this case, leaders in Congress and the President had reached a consensus on a path forward and polls showed public support. Yet soft majority support in the polls could not trump the strong opinion intensity of minority opposition, especially when it was mobilized by conservative media and leaders.

    For fence sitters in Congress, –via phone calls, emails, and letters–the voice of the public that was loudest was by far that of opponents to immigration reform.

    —>The unfortunate reality is that climate change requires even more systematic policy action than either welfare or immigration. Yet while the aggregate polls show that the public is concerned about the topic, the public still lacks opinion intensity on the issue.

    For example, in polls asking the public to name the “most important problem” facing the country, climate change doesn’t show up. In Pew polls asking the public to rank 21 issues in terms of political priority, climate change ranks dead last among Republicans and as a bottom tier issue even among Independents and Democrats.

    Moreover, as I explained in my blog post, we still have a major divide between Democrats and Republicans in how they view the issue. Over the past year, Democrats have become almost universally concerned and worried whereas a majority of Republicans remain skeptical of the science and the urgency of the issue.

    –>In the UK, there are different conditions, and therefore a different role for public opinion. The political parties in that system have never been deeply divided over the nature of global warming and its’ importance. In the absence of elite-level partisan rancor, policy makers can work together to prioritize and pass policy measures without the impetus of public opinion. (Indeed, this is typically what happens in the US with science funding generally, or on specific issues like plant biotech, where there is strong bi-partisan support at the elite level yet a majority of Americans remain unaware of the issue.)

    However, on climate change–similar to the examples of welfare and immigration–if Congress and the President are going to first prioritize the issue among many competing topics and then formulate and pass systematic policy, then the issue has to rise in public concern and in opinion intensity. In other words, achieving meaningful policy action remains centrally a public communication problem.

    –>Finally, as you know from reading our articles at Science and the Washington Post, with one amendment, we agree with you strongly that the goals of public communication should not be as you write to “agitate people about global warming such that they view it as a crisis, but instead to design [AND EFFECTIVELY COMMUNICATE ABOUT] policies that are compatible with public values.”

  8. #8 Roger Pielke, Jr.
    August 30, 2007

    Thanks for this thoughtful comment. Some replies:

    1. You state that the role of public opinion in policy making “depends”.

    I agree!

    2. That there are examples of public opinion being used as a tool of manipulating public support for or against certain policies.

    I agree!

    3. You assert: “The unfortunate reality is that climate change requires even more systematic policy action than either welfare or immigration.”

    Depending on what you mean by “systematic policy action” I think I agree here as well. For issues that require a single vote, or a single piece of legislation (e.g., the “immigration reform bill”) or (“welfare reform”) there is indeed be a close connection between intensity of public opinion and public action. Of course the best example of these dynamics are presidential campaigns.

    But this logic breaks down for issues that require many actions over a long time with very diffuse impacts. Ozone depletion was never considered the most important problem, yet policy makers have been making decisions about it for more than 20 years. World trade liberalization has never
    been a top issue but decision makers have been making decisions about it for a half century or more.

    The assumption that action on climate change requires public support at an intensity levels higher than presently observed is exactly that – an assumption. And this assumption feeds the exact dynamics that keep us in gridlock!! (Namely, that we must destroy the “deniers” and convert everyone to the same view.)

    4. You assert that the UK can be characterized as having an “absence of elite-level partisan rancor”

    On this I just disagree. There is plenty of partisan rancor on climate change here. It is in the news just about every day. True there is little disagreement on the basic science, but on impacts, economics, policies there is plenty of debate on all aspects of the issue, and the public is fully engaged.

    Even further the Eurobarometer surveys show that in the UK, as in much of the EU, climate change is not anywhere close to a top priority! The economy, unemployment, crime, etc. etc. are at the top. Check it out here:

    http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb67/eb_67_first_en.pdf

    The reason for action in the face of apparent low intensity is that the policies being advanced in the UK and EU have broad appeal to various pre-existing interests. Those same policies do not have built in constituencies in the US. Other creative policies may however. In fact, for action to occur in the US will require not the EU-ization of the US, but the US-ization of climate policy.

    5. I am confused by your last point. You assert that people need to have more intense feelings about climate change for political action to occur. But what action? Here again we need to learn the lessons of environmental successes of the past. Public and elite opinion followed the development of policies (and technologies) that appealed to broad constituencies. An intense public absent options for action lead to symbolic actions at best and disillusionment at worst.

    My bottom line:

    Public opinion for action on climate is plenty strong for action to occur in the US. The challenge is to find those actions that allow that action to occur. I am convinced that efforts to increase further the intensity of public opinion have far more downside than upside at this point.
    Walter Lippmann once said that politics is about making people who think differently act alike. It is not about making people think alike.

    Thanks!

    Roger

  9. #9 Fergus Brown
    September 5, 2007

    Excuse me for butting in. Public opinion matters; more perhaps in the US than elsewhere, because politicians’ analysts look at it carefully. But as the recent IPSOS MORI poll shows, even in the UK, where awareness is high and concern about the future reasonably high, this rarely gets converted into public action (George Marshall has a good post on this).

    What signals do policy makers get from this? Surely, if Joe Public is not worried enough to do anything about in person, then the issue will not figure in considerations of who to vote for above the local, parochial issues which often dominate voting decisions. In the face of this, there is no pressure on politicians to do any more than talk as if they care.

    I suggest, then, that public action (beyond the purely nominal) will have an impact on both policy making and on the markets. If we buy enough local produce to change the balance of the market, then retailers have to adapt. If we buy more ‘carbon-friendly’ products, make fewer non-essential journeys and lower our domestic energy consumption, then it is clear that we, the public, care enough about the issues to take unilateral action which involves a nominal self-sacrifice.

    If this is the case (disagreement welcomed), then public opinion matters, because it leads to public action. But the kind of action which we all know is needed to turn things around – and this holds for the environment as well as the climate – is only likely to happen if the public en masse changes its everyday habits. The public communication should therefore be addressed directly at promoting an atmosphere where changing our lifestyles is desirable (for whatever reason), or answers a need or deficiency in the mind of the public.

    As a final side note, it is reassuring to note that scientific opinion is still considered to be a factor in influencing public opinion.

    Regards,

  10. #10 laptop batteries
    August 30, 2008

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