How does the politicization of climate change affect public opinion?

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Recent polling that suggests a decline in U.S. public concern about global warming has raised fears about the viability of building and maintaining support for climate legislation and policy unless there is more widespread understanding of the threat. Climate science has also taken a hit in the news recently with the “Climategate” controversy and questions about the efficacy of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) review process. Yet the fierce politicization of the climate change problem raises questions as to whether public opinion has been shaped more by partisan conflict than by an understanding, or a lack thereof, of the scientific findings per se.

Post by Alexa Jay, Climate Science Watch

When high stakes policy debates are presented as being dictated by scientific evidence, a strong incentive is created to either hype up or dismiss scientific findings for political ends. This dynamic has increasingly emerged surrounding the use of climate science to support or oppose greenhouse gas regulation and other climate-related policies.

Driven by factors like the Bush administration’s censorship of climate science communication, Al Gore’s prominent role in promoting awareness of the science of global warming, and frequent Republican deployment of climate change denial and “skepticism” to oppose greenhouse gas regulation, a destructive dichotomy has been created suggesting that valuing the role of science in public policy is a matter of political partisanship. 

Further, the corporate-funded campaign to play up uncertainties in climate science, carried out through industry associations like the American Petroleum Institute and front groups like the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, has done its part to sow public confusion about the level of consensus in climate science. 

These factors have combined to create the perception, fed by the media, that climate science “skeptics” are engaging in a vigorous, legitimate debate with climate scientists about the fundamental evidence on human-driven climate change. Because Democrats have been the most vocal supporters of comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation and of climate science itself, some Republicans have seized the opportunity to use accusations against climate scientists as reason enough to dismiss Democratic policy intended to mitigate climate change out of hand. See earlier posts here and here.

Peddlers of this myth push the assumption that climate science cannot take place independently of the influence of policy debates, accusing the climate science community and institutions like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of having a political agenda, conspiring to fabricate data, and hyping up the science for personal gain.

This perception of ongoing controversy about the fundamental scientific evidence is encouraged by the media, which tends to define news in terms of conflict, whether real or manufactured. By frequent exposure to a partisan divide on scientific issues that are not inherently political, the public loses the ability to absorb new information without placing it into a predetermined framework. 

Under the traditional “deficit model” of public attitudes towards science, it is assumed that these attitudes are shaped directly by scientific knowledge. When particular policy actions are linked to scientific knowledge, it follows that public opposition to those actions is a result of a lack of scientific understanding of the issue. Scientific literacy is presumed to be the cure and can be achieved through improved science outreach education and communication.

However, this model glosses over the reality of how opinions are formed, namely the many factors at work in how people make up their minds about complex issues. Matthew Nisbet of the American University Center for Science, Society, and the Environment elaborated on this issue in relation to the science of climate change at a recent America Geophysical Union meeting.

The way information is framed can have a significant effect on how it is interpreted, especially when it is couched in partisan tropes to encourage divisiveness. For example, framing a discussion about greenhouse gas emissions with an anti-regulatory perspective would endow certain dimensions of the issue with greater apparent relevance than the same dimensions might appear to have under an alternative frame, such as public heath. 

Given the fierce politicization of the climate change discussion, a meaningful interpretation of public opinion data on climate change must examine the role of partisan differences and framing to tease out the real significance behind the numbers.

Such an examination can begin to address the question of how partisan barriers can be broken down in climate science communication, and ask how framing can be used to grow the audience on complex scientific issues. As Matt Nisbet puts it, the end goal would be to empower and enable wider public participation in the issues surrounding climate change—not to mobilize people around a particular legislative issue or policy, but to allow people to feel engaged in making decisions about an issue with profound effects on the future. 

The Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication recently released Climate Change in the American Mind: Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in January 2010, a study based on interviews conducted December 24, 2009—January 3, 2010.

The data in this study suggest a decline in belief in and concern about human-caused global warming between 2008 and 2010. 57% of respondents said they believe global warming is happening now, compared with 71% in 2008. The percentage of those that believe it is caused mostly by human activities has declined from 57% to 47%.

In 2008, 63% were “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about global warming, compared with 50% in 2010.

The survey did not correlate opinions on global warming with partisan or regional issues, which have become increasingly relevant as climate and clean energy legislation moves through Congress. Political messages regarding legislative proposals employ frames emphasizing certain parts of the issue, influencing how people view the problem in relation to other concerns. For example, an ad opposing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions might emphasize the potential for increased job loss in certain regions, such that economic concerns become paramount and are placed in opposition to environmental regulation.

When asked, “Which comes closest to your own view?”, in 2008 47% responded “Most scientists think global warming is happening,” compared with 34% in 2010. In 2008, 33% answered “there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening”; in 2010 40% chose this answer.

Additional questions about where respondents get their information on climate change might have helped tease out why these numbers have dipped, but politically-driven attempts to play up uncertainty in climate science have likely had a significant effect. 

Despite the recent accusations of fraud levied against climate scientists, respondents continue to place a high level of trust in scientists as sources of climate change information. In 2008, 83% said they either “strongly trust” or “somewhat trust” scientists as sources of information about global warming. In 2010, that figure was 74%. For television weather reporters, those figures were 66% in 2008, and 56% in 2010. For the mainstream news media, 47% in 2008, and 36% in 2010. For religious leaders, 47% in 2008, 45% in 2010.

In addition, some questions showed a stability of response, with approximately the same level of concern between 2008 and 2010.

When asked, “How much do you think global warming with harm people in the United States?”, 50% answered “a great deal” or “a moderate amount” in 2008, compared with 51% in 2010.

When asked, “How much do you think global warming will harm future generations of people?” 61% thought “a great deal” or “a moderate amount” in 2008; 64% in 2010. 

When asked, “How much do you think global warming will harm plant and animal species?” 63% thought “a great deal” or “a moderate amount” in 2008; 62% in 2010.

These numbers could suggest that when the issue of global warming is discussed in an environmental/public health framework, people are more likely to access their feelings of concern about potential impacts on public welfare, and may consider the issue outside of a political framework.

The environmental and public health dimensions of the issue have not been featured in most mainstream discussions, which tend to focus instead on domestic and international politics, regulatory action, and scientific uncertainty or controversy. The mainstream news cycle lends itself much more readily to “shock” stories that gloss over these deeper issues in favor of easily digestible sound bites. 

These dimensions have also not been as heavily politicized, and may offer a path forward towards meaningful public engagement with the climate change problem and how it will impact the health, safety, and security of the nation and the world. An emphasis on common values, such as a healthy environment for future generations, could help shift global warming discussions towards shared goals and principles and away from unproductive partisan rancor. 

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