Do Surveys This Week Show More Signs of Climate Fatigue?

Two surveys released this week provide more information on how public opinion may or may not be shifting relative to climate change and energy. I provide some highlights and quick context below on fears over a growing "climate fatigue."

Pew: Global Warming and Energy Wane as Perceived Priorities

Earlier this week, timed to tonight's State of the Union address, Pew released its annual survey of perceived policy priorities for the President and Congress. As has been the case the past few years, global warming ranked last among the more than 20 issues polled with only 28% of Americans rating the issue as a "top priority." As Pew reports:

The percentage that now says addressing global warming should be a top priority has fallen 10 points from 2007, when 38% considered it a top priority. Such a low ranking is driven in part by indifference among Republicans: just 11% consider global warming a top priority, compared with 43% of Democrats and 25% of independents. Protecting the environment fares somewhat better than dealing with global warming on the public's list of priorities, though it still falls on the lower half of the list overall. Some 44% say that protecting the environment should be a top priority for Obama and Congress, little changed from 2009.

Perhaps even more significantly, the Pew survey indicated a sharp drop in the perceived priority of "dealing with the U.S. energy problem" with 49% of Americans rating this issue as a top priority, down 11 points from 60% in 2009. Energy now rests at about the level of perceived priority as was the case in the years 2004 and 2005.


Over the past year, the perceived priority of energy has ebbed among Republicans (51% in 2009 down to 43% in 2010), Democrats (66% to 56%) and Independents (61% to 45%) alike.

As I wrote in an article at the journal Environment earlier this year, the perceived priority of climate and energy policy--and the opinion intensity felt by the public on these interconnected issues--matters significantly to policy action. In the context of two wars and an economic crisis, absent a shift in the polls and a surge in input from a diversity of constituents, it is unlikely that a strong majority in Congress will accept the political risks needed to pass meaningful policy actions. Past research shows that opinion intensity and perceived personal importance of an issue is one of the strongest predictors of political participation i.e. contacting elected officials, writing or calling in to news organizations, attending local meetings, and other forms of political activity and civic voice.

More importantly than pressure on elected officials, democratic principles are at stake. Policies to address climate change and energy will bear directly on the future of Americans, impacting their pocketbooks, lifestyles, and local communities. These decisions are therefore too significant to leave to just elected officials and experts; citizens need to be actively involved and engaged.

Yale/GMU: Despite Fatigue, Scientists Still Dominate Public Trust

Anthony Leiserowitz and Ed Maibach were also in the field earlier this month and have released the first look at some of the very detailed questions they asked about climate change in a nationally representative survey. Their survey offers a direct comparison to multiple questions that they first asked in 2008.

According to the findings, in 2010, fewer Americans are sure that global warming is happening, that scientists agree on the issue, are worried about global warming, or think that it will effect them personally.

Specific to perceived priority and opinion intensity, just 20% of Americans feel that climate change is either extremely important (5%) or very important (15%) to them personally, down from a combined 32% in 2008.

Americans, however, still overwhelmingly trust scientists for information about climate change, despite the furor over ClimateGate the past few months and voiced fears that public trust might be damaged.

When asked "how much do you trust or distrust the following as sources of information about climate change," 74% of Americans trust scientists either strongly (22%) or somewhat (52%). Though this combined figure is down slightly from 83% in 2008, on the trust index, scientists still outrank every other societal group or individual queried with only TV metereologists and President Obama coming close at 56% and 51% respectively.

As I wrote last week, despite a dominant narrative on the part of many liberal commentators that blames an "unscientific America" and a prevailing "anti-scientific" public for societal inaction on climate change, these survey findings are consistent with a body of research and surveys that show a relatively unchanging public trust, admiration, and deference to science and scientists.

On climate change, scientists and their organizations have almost unequaled communication capital, part of the problem is using that communication capital wisely and effectively--partnering with other societal leaders to promote greater public engagement and trust across society.

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Interestingly, in the Yale/GMU poll, the % of those surveyed who agreed "Most scientists think global warming is happening" dropped from 47% to 34% (Q59) despite a lack of signficant change in what climate scientists have been saying on AGW.

I can think of two explainations for this off hand - either the public perception of "scientists" is broad and includes people outside of climate science fields and precieves them to have been expressing more doubts recently (it would be interesting to see what the trust levels are for climate scientists vs scientists in general) or that what scientists say shapes changes in public perceptions of what scientists are saying less than changes in public perceptions of AGW shape the public perception of what scientists are saying.

Based on the coverage given on readily available news sources, I think that what the public perceives to be true about climate change is that a controversy is raging. I do not think that most people have the means to assess the credentials or numbers of actual qualified scientists on either side of this issue.

Many scientists and others who have been trying to report on climate change have fallen into some unfortunate traps. Too much effort is being spent on teaching the controversy. Many attempts at personalizing the effect of climate change have been done by pointing to local weather patterns and trends, which only can truly be attributed to global climate change in aggregate. Thus, one locally cold winter is enough to turn many people into skeptics.

I do not agree that climate change advocates have "almost unequaled" communication capital, I think that the opposing forces are much more powerful and media savvy.

People's sense of urgency is based on their feelings of personal well being. It is difficult to get people to think long term. I think that people do want to have a sense of hope about the future. A lot of the admiration of science is based on that hope.

Thus, I believe that effective communication is possible.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 28 Jan 2010 #permalink