Climate change opinion is now up to pre-Climategate levels

Posted in Climate Sock, Climategate on July 1st, 2012 by Leo – 10 Comments

Over a short period at the start of 2010, belief that climate change is real and manmade fell sharply. Since then, it recovered slightly but had remained lower than it was at the end of 2009.

But now three polls have shown that the decline has been fully reversed.

The fall in agreement with climate science was widely covered at the time. A BBC poll in February ‘10 was typical of the shift and reporting:

This fall in agreement with climate science followed ‘Climategate’, the Copenhagen Conference, and a particularly cold winter. Individually, none of these are good explanations for the fall – see here  – and I think the most likely explanation is that they together prompted a change in media tone about climate change, which then affected public attitudes.

Since then we’ve seen some evidence that concern about climate change has been increasing again. But these new polls are the first to indicate that level of belief that climate change is real and manmade has returned to where it was at the end of 2009 (note the distinction between ‘concern’ and ‘belief’: both matter, but while it’s symbolically important we shouldn’t get too hung up on ‘belief’).

Each poll asks the question in different ways:

The Guardian/ICM poll found that the proportion that thinks climate change is real and manmade is the same now as it was in December ‘09 (and credit to them for including a link to the data in the article – still unusual).

Although Dec ’09 was after ‘Climategate’ broke, it was before public opinion changed, so this is a good ‘before’ and ‘after’ comparison.

The Guardian’s analysis is that the poll shows that the economic climate has had little impact on public attitudes to global warming. I disagree with this for two reasons.

Firstly, the Guardian didn’t ask the question between Dec ’09 and June ’12, so didn’t pick up concern falling and then coming back up.

Secondly, other polls have showed that the recession took attention away from everything non-economic, including climate change.

So from this poll it looks like we’ve overcome some doubts about climate change. But to say there’s been “a remarkable pattern of stability in acceptance of climate change as established fact” isn’t likely.

The second poll, by the Sunday Times/YouGov, finds a similar pattern. Agreement that climate change is real and manmade has increased over the last two years:

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What do we do when two good polls say opposite things?

Posted in Climate Sock, Climategate, Media on January 31st, 2011 by leo – 5 Comments

Crikey.  You wait months for fresh data and then two big ones come at once.  And such is life, they say pretty much opposite things. I’ll get to some proper analysis later, but just for now some first thoughts.

Firstly, about the polls. There’s one in the Guardian that apparently shows concern about climate change to be at the same level now as it was in August ’09, i.e. before the UEA emails, the cold winters, Copenhagen, and the relentless stories about how no-one believes in climate change any more.

Then, there’s one in the Mail – which is actually reporting ONS data from August last year – that shows that agreement with climate science is lower now than it’s been at any point since ’06 (when the figures begin).

So, my reactions:

This isn’t a case of the Guardian being climate warriors and the Mail being climate deniers

As far as I can see, both are reporting the data accurately. There’s no apparent cherry picking, and it looks like the comparisons with previous polls are fair. The Guardian’s reporting stands out for linking directly to both data sets, which I don’t remember ever seeing before – round of applause for Damian Carrington – but the Mail’s doesn’t say anything that I don’t think is justifiable (though it took quite a while to find the data – any reason they couldn’t link to it?).

The questions are different and may not be measuring the same phenomenon

I’ve been saying for a while that the decrease in people saying they’re absolutely convinced that the climate is changing/that global warming is a very big problem may be a factor of the way the ‘debate’ between climate warriors and deniers is being conducted. It’s become so vitriolic that many people are heading for the middle ground, on the assumption that both sides are partly right (or because they’re just sick of it).

So a question like ONS’s, whose answer choices are “very convinced/fairly convinced/not very convinced/not at all convinced/don’t know” would tend to lose people from the extremes of the scale to the middle (as happens to an extent: 45% in ’06 to 41% now).

In contrast, the Guardian’s question was on a discrete scale and didn’t present the contrast between firm opinion vs middle ground (climate change already a threat / will be a threat in the future / not a threat / don’t know). Maybe as a result, there’s less of an effect from the way the debate is being conducted and reported.

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Apparently it really is the economy, stupid

Posted in Climate Sock, Climategate on January 20th, 2011 by leo – 2 Comments

GlobeScan have recently been trailing this year’s results for their annual global tracker, which has prompted a bit of a geekout in Climatesockland.  These guys at GlobeScan seriously mean business with their tracker: they’re now up to 27 countries, including some places where fieldwork for a nationally representative poll takes quite a bit of organising (I dread to think how you would do a truly nationally representative poll in Indonesia for example, but so they claim to have done).

The good news, poll fans, is that those nice people at GlobeScan have sent me some of the data that they hadn’t previously published (unlike the PR polls that are so irritatingly reported without any published data to back them up, this was a piece of private polling, so GlobeScan weren’t governed by the rules of the British Polling Council to release the data).

And from even this relatively small bit of data, we see something interesting:

That looks to me like a significant fall in concern about climate change between ’09 and ’10 that seems to be felt across the world.

This would seem to challenge the usual explanations for the fall in the UK of concern about climate change between late ’09 and early ’10. A particularly cold winter can’t possibly be the explanation for this given that ’10 seems to have been one of the hottest years on record globally.

Similarly, it’s very hard to believe that the UEA emails (and other challenges to climate science) made enough of a splash in all of these countries to have driven these changes.

If we go back to earlier data, and look at changes from ’07 to ’10, we see a slightly different picture:

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This week’s polls

Posted in Climate Sock, Climategate, Energy sources on June 20th, 2010 by leo – Comments Off on This week’s polls

Busily working on a presentation this weekend (which will be up here soon), so just a couple of links to some interesting new polls:

The Understanding Risk group have recently released their data for a UK national poll focused on climate change and energy sources. It’s got loads to look at, and the results can be interpreted in various ways, particularly with the comparison with a 2005 data .  One way of looking at it is  that there’s no evidence that people have become any more worried about climate change since 2005 (and arguably have become less concerned).  But most people are still pretty worried, and levels of outright rejection are still very low.

A poll from Stanford shows that in the US about a third now remember hearing stories about climate scientists’ emails, and about a quarter remember stories about the IPCC’s reports. The unspecified climate scientists come out slightly better than the IPCC – perhaps reflecting US feelings about international institutions. (Thanks Bob Ward for pointing this one out)

Another US poll, this one from Yale/George Mason, indicates that scientists are the most trusted source of information about global warming – and that trust has recovered after a small drop in January (though not much beyond margin of error). Another part of this poll is accessible here.

And finally… a very PR-friendly poll from Greenpeace. Apparently nearly three quarters in Suffolk want more investment in clean energy like wind power.

Making the case for tackling climate change

Posted in Climate Sock, Climategate, Communications, Media on June 13th, 2010 by leo – 4 Comments

There’s an excellent article in a recent New Scientist, which makes a powerful case for rethinking the way climate change is communicated. While the article, by Bob Ward, is controversial, and may jar with a lot of climate scientists and communicators, much of what we’ve seen here in the public opinion data bear him out, and his conclusions seem sound.

The article starts with the assertion that climate scientists’ reputation has been damaged by the challenges to the analyses of the IPCC and UEA’s research teams. This is plausible, though I’m reluctant to accept the direct comparison made with the damage suffered by the Roman Catholic Church and the UK Parliament over the last couple of years.

It’s true there’s been some decline in conviction in the UK that man-made climate change is happening, but I’m yet to see evidence that this was a direct consequence of the stories about the IPCC and UEA. The polls around the time of the coverage of the UEA email hack suggested little change in public opinion; it wasn’t until the freezing winter that the numbers really moved (though: post hoc ergo propter hoc – this doesn’t prove that the cold weather caused the shift). It may indeed be the case that scientists have become less trusted as communicators about climate change, but as far as I’m aware this hypothesis hasn’t yet been proved.

Nevertheless, Ward’s broader argument still stands. Even if lack of trust in climate scientists is not necessarily itself a major issue, there clearly is a problem. Public interest, belief, and commitment to tackling climate change appear to be fairly malleable, and are affected substantially by short-term factors like the weather – rather than by developments in the science. The activities of critics of climate research are also effectively keeping alive the question of whether or not man-made climate change is happening, to a greater extent than may be justified. On top of this, politicians appear to be the main group who are heard talking about talking climate change, yet they’re also the group who are least trusted to do so.

As Ward argues, climate science is making a mistake in “hunkering down and hoping for the best”. Instead, it should learn from how other organisations have recovered from similar challenges. Quoting from a PR strategist at Weber Shandwick, he suggests a course of action that’s quite different from the approaches that appear to have been taken recently:

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‘Belief’ in climate change is the wrong goal

Posted in Climate Sock, Climategate, Media on April 5th, 2010 by leo – 4 Comments

Since Copenhagen, and since Climategate and all that followed, the climate change deniers are seen to be on the front foot. Not only in the media coverage, but in the blogs, campaign meetings and email groups, the conversation has become about how those trying to prevent climate change can recapture the initiative.

As we’ve seen, public opinion about climate change hasn’t moved very far since Climategate, and some of those changes may just be because it was so cold for so long. Yet, the recent public debate about climate change has still focused heavily on whether or not people believe that climate change is real.

This not only exaggerates public doubt, and distracts from other conversations about climate change, but other polling data also suggest that belief in climate change is a poor guide to people’s desire for action to tackle it.

The case that climate change is happening, is man-made, and if unchecked will cause serious harm, is a difficult one to win convincingly among non-scientists. Science is about uncertainties; a decent scientist would never say that they are absolutely certain of their case. But this doesn’t lend itself well to public debate. As science communicators and policy makers know, it is very difficult to win a public argument about a scientific issue when it has any vocal opposition. Uncertainties and risks can be taken out of context and exaggerated, creating greater doubt than is justified.

So something that is relatively likely to happen – like significant man-made climate change – gets bundled together with something that is relatively unlikely to happen, like a Swine Flu pandemic killing millions. This happens against a background of a debate between those who are very confident that climate change is real, and those who are convinced that it isn’t. For most people outside this vituperative debate, neither side appears attractive. The natural response is to assume that both sides are overstating their case, and that the true answer lies somewhere between them.

Thus, people seeking action on climate change aren’t going to win any time soon if winning is defined as having an overwhelming majority pledging absolute loyalty to the idea that climate change is man-made, and significant. The arguments about evolution are instructive: even 150 years after The Origin of Species, many still think, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that evolution isn’t a convincing theory.

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Don’t leave climate change to the politicians

Posted in Climate Sock, Climategate, Politics on March 29th, 2010 by leo – 4 Comments

We saw in December that governments seem to be expected largely to take responsibility for dealing with climate change, rather than to encourage people to be responsible themselves.

This struck me then as a problem, and data from January’s Mori poll adds weight to this thought, suggesting that there is a real risk in politicians being the main group that’s heard to talk about climate change. But the results also give us some of the most striking results I’ve seen to suggest that the British public are in fact pretty concerned about climate change.

At the end of their questionnaire, Mori asked the respondents their level of agreement with a series of statements, covering perceptions of climate change, personal responsibility, and the role of government. What the responses suggest is that people are worried about climate change, but are highly suspicious of politicians’ motives when they hear them talking about it.

The statements around the importance and impact of climate change indicate that levels of strong scepticism among the public remain relatively low. More than twice as many strongly disagree that climate change is “scaremongering”, and very few accept the argument that climate change is not necessarily bad for the planet.

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The limited impact of Climategate

Posted in Climate Sock, Climategate, Media on March 4th, 2010 by leo – 7 Comments

A new Mori poll has just been published, which gives more data on the impact of the recent stories about climate science. The most notable headline from the new survey confirms what we saw in the BBC poll last month: that belief in climate change has fallen over the last year.

Yet, belief that climate change is a reality is still high, despite this drop. Indeed, the changes in public attitudes appear so far to have been restricted to this question of whether climate change is real: there has been less movement in questions about what causes climate change, and how it can be stopped.

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Dancing to the wrong tune

Posted in Climate Sock, Climategate, Media on February 7th, 2010 by leo – 3 Comments

Another week, another shonky poll? On Friday the BBC reported their new survey, which they claimed showed a clear drop in the number of people who believe in climate change or that it’s man-made.

After the BBC’s inaccurate coverage of a climate poll last year, I was ready for this to be another bit of mis-reporting ripe for a take-down. Yet in both the poll and the way the BBC described the numbers, there’s little to fault: their data do indeed suggest that belief in man-made climate change has fallen since November. But I’m not convinced that the UEA emails or the glacier controversy were behind these changes, or that the changes in levels of belief are inherently interesting or important.

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Climate opinion after UEA

Posted in Climate Sock, Climategate, Media on January 10th, 2010 by leo – 6 Comments

Following the UEA email hack, it’s become part of the media narrative that opinion is turning against man-made global warming. It’s usually worth checking any such media claim about changes in public opinion that have supposedly occurred following a series of news stories, particularly ‘dramatic revelations’. Even when people are aware of these stories, they are often not interested, or may be disinclined to believe them and change their opinion.

Testing the impact of the UEA story is tricky, because there are currently no public polling firms that have regular polls with consistently phrased questions about climate change. But data from two polls, one taken in early November, the other in early December, do suggest that the UEA story has had no measurable impact on belief in man-made global warming.

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