Is Britain top of the scepticism league?

Posted in Climate Sock, Media on December 5th, 2010 by leo – Comments Off on Is Britain top of the scepticism league?

In this week’s Economist, there’s a bold assertion casually dropped into an article about the cold winter*: “Britain’s scepticism about climate change … [is] already more widespread than in many other European countries”.

Leaving aside the escape route that ‘many’ provides, it’s quite a claim, and one that I’m not sure I’ve seen evidence for. So what defence can we make of it?

The annual HSBC Climate Confidence Monitor is a good source of international data on attitudes to climate change. It asks consistent questions in a decent number of countries (currently 15 countries), so gives us results that can be measured between countries and over time. This year’s results have recently come out, and are available here.

But before we look at the results, there’s something we need to talk about. Across the world, people respond to survey questions in ways that differ consistently from country to country. In some countries, people are generally more likely to choose upper points on a scale, and in other countries, people tend to stay closer to the middle. In my experience, we see a much higher proportion of people choosing upper points on a scale in China than we do in Germany, for example.

This matters a great deal when we’re comparing international data sets. Because of this difference in international scale-usage patterns, it wouldn’t necessarily be fair, for example, to look at a poll that shows 75% in China saying they’re very worried about climate change, and compared that with 60% in Germany who say the same, and conclude that more people in China are worried about climate change than in Germany.

It’s much safer to look at the kinds of questions that avoid scale-usage patterns. While a question like “On a 7-point scale, how worried are you about climate change” would be subject to scale-usage patterns, a question like “Which of these issues are you most worried about” wouldn’t be, because interviewees have to select just one of the issues.

This brings us back to the HSBC data. There is indeed a question in the poll that avoids scale-usage issues: a list of issues, with interviewees asked to select which is their top concern.

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Don’t just believe what you’re told about polls

Posted in Bad polling, Climate Sock, Energy sources, Media on November 14th, 2010 by leo – 11 Comments

From time to time a news story comes out citing a poll that isn’t in the public domain. These articles are written on the basis of a press release – apparently all the information the journalist has about the poll.

Given that journalists are supposed to be a cynical bunch, this always strikes me as surprising. By writing up the data from the press release without checking the poll themselves, they’re taking a leap of faith that they’ve been given a fair representation of the truth. Since these press releases (of course) show results that are helpful to the organisation that commissioned the poll, you would expect due diligence for a journalist to include checking the data.

A recent poll by EDF Energy, carried out by ICM, shows why this matters.

The research was conducted among 1002 adults living near the Hinkley Point Power Station, and asked about their attitudes to nuclear power and the possible construction of a new plant.

On the strength of the poll, EDF put out this press release, in which they said that “Nearly four times as many local people support plans for a new power station at Hinkley Point than oppose it”, and that “63% support the development of Hinkley Point C”. The press release was picked up quite widely by local media, including the BBC. Nice job by their PR people in winning positive local coverage.

Fortunately, ICM is a member of the British Polling Council (BPC) and abides by its rules. These rules are strongly weighted towards transparency, and include the stipulation that where research findings have entered the public domain – as in this poll – the full data and complete wording of the questionnaire must be made available.

As ever, ICM have done this, and we can look at the data here to test out EDF’s claim.

Firstly, there’s no dispute about the figures they’ve issued. As they say, 63% are “strongly in favour” or “slightly in favour” of the potential development of Hinkley Point C, and only 17% are slightly or strongly opposed.

However, being able to see the complete data also allows us to see the wording of the whole questionnaire.  The sequence of questions runs:

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There may be trouble ahead

Posted in Climate Sock, Media on October 24th, 2010 by leo – 2 Comments

It looks like we’ve had the starting pistol for the biannual ritual of the season’s change justifying a spate of articles predicting the next few months’ weather. It’s always fun for us Brits, though not exactly harmless. Misreporting of a Met Office’s 2009 seasonal forecast – as a ‘barbecue summer’ – somehow led to serious suggestion that it should be sold off, despite its record as one of world’s most accurate forecasting bodies.

Now this autumn, the Guardian has pitched in with a story about the early arrival of some Bewick’s swans to the UK. Apparently their early departure from Siberia, tied with a cold forecast for the week ahead, was enough to justify an article predicting a cold winter ahead.

Without wanting to take the article too seriously (it is, after all, only a well-executed piece of PR by the Slimbridge Wetland Centre), the prospect of a cold winter should be a worry for anyone campaigning on climate change. Last year, we saw the collapse of talks in Copenhagen; Climategate; Glaciergate (the stories don’t need to be true to have been reported as damaging climate science) – and the coldest winter in the UK for 31 years. Of these, the weather may well have done the most to influence public concern about climate change.

The evidence for this is circumstantial because no-one asked the right questions, but seems fairly strong. A poll in December ’09, when the stories about UEA emails were at their peak, showed no significant movement in agreement with climate science. Yet, another poll, in January ’10, when the UEA stories had died down, but the cold weather was at its most severe, showed a significant drop in agreement that climate change was a reality (though I think methodological problems with this latter poll seriously weaken it). In the other direction, we’ve also seen that confidence in climate science increases when heatwaves or storms cause major disruption, and the media attribute this weather to climate change.

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The muzzled dog of the Australian election

Posted in Climate Sock, Media, Politics on August 8th, 2010 by leo – 1 Comment

Last week, we saw that Australian PM Julia Gillard’s proposal for a citizens’ assembly to analyse and propose climate policy was widely criticised – but that despite the hype, there really wasn’t any evidence that it was turning the election against Labor. A week on, and it looks like the fuss about Gillard’s plan has completely disappeared, and climate change has become the muzzled dog of the campaign.

For anyone not following the election – you’re missing out. When Gillard called the election last month after toppling Rudd to become Prime Minister, Labor had a fairly healthy lead over the Liberal/National Coalition. But of the last eight polls, three have given the lead to the Coalition, three to Labour (including one being reported as I write), and two call it as a dead heat.  The excellent Pollytics has produced an election simulator that gives a wafer-thin majority to Labor, but it’s clear at this point that the result could easily tip either way.

One of the key factors will be the performance and role of the Greens. They could be crucial in two ways. Firstly, they have a good shot of winning the Melbourne Division from Labor, having polled 45% in the redistributed share in the last election. In an election as close as this, the result in that one seat could make a big difference to Labor – and potentially to the Greens if they win it, and can use its leverage in helping Labor form a government.

Secondly, while the Greens didn’t have any seats in the lower house of the last parliament, they’re polling at around 13% and the election uses Alternative Vote. To bring their redistributed share above 50%, Labor will rely on Green second preferences votes; in the latest Nielsen poll, Labor is getting 83% of those votes – which is strong but leaves perhaps crucial room for improvement.

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Climate change in the Australian election

Posted in Climate Sock, Media, Politics on August 1st, 2010 by leo – Comments Off on Climate change in the Australian election

The Australian media has been deeply critical of Julia Gillard’s proposal for a citizens’ assembly to explore policy responses to climate change. It’s been attacked both by advocates, and critics, of action to tackle climate change – with the coverage attributing particular significance in the heat of the election campaign.

There’s indeed some polling evidence to suggest that voters aren’t convinced by Gillard’s proposal, but its importance in influencing the election seems to have been exaggerated. Despite some of the claims, there’s very little evidence that it’s having much of an impact on voting intentions.

Gillard’s proposal is for a 150-strong assembly of citizens, selected to be nationally representative, which would analyse and discuss climate issues, and make recommendations to policy-makers. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, a majority of 53% oppose the proposal, while 41% support it. Another poll for the Daily Telegraph apparently found 62% opposed.

Unfortunately, Australian pollsters don’t appear to be as obliging with their data as are those in some other countries, so I only have these papers’ word to go on for the results of the polls, and can’t check how fairly they’re worded.  This is important because the wording of a question can have a huge impact on the results that come out. But taking the two polls on face value, the conclusion appears to be that the policy is slightly unpopular – but not wildly so.

Despite this, some of the coverage has presented public reaction in a very different light. According to the Australian, “voters have turned against Labor’s proposal for a citizens assembly on climate change”. 3AW claim it could be “the ‘turning point’” of the election.

But these claims that the policy is swinging the election look rather like bluster without any real evidence behind it. Gillard made the announcement on 23rd July. Since then, the polls have shown no trends and no movement outside the margin of error. One pollster has Labor falling 3pts; another shows them gaining 2pts, then losing 2pts in the next poll; a third has them falling 1.5pt and then losing another point in a subsequent poll.

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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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Before we get carried away…

Posted in Climate Sock, Media on May 30th, 2010 by leo – 3 Comments

After a pause in hostilities for the election, it looks like the favourite climate story of the year has resurfaced.  A new poll is out and being covered with the headline that fewer people now believe in climate change or think that it’s an urgent issue demanding attention.

There’s some truth in the basic argument that people are now less convinced and worried about climate change than they have been in the past. But when the Guardian runs a story like this, it gets widely noticed and repeated, and there are several reasons why we shouldn’t get too carried away by the news.

1. This is the same story we have already heard several times

In February, there was quite a bit of print, broadcast and online coverage for a BBC poll that showed a fall in public belief in climate change. According to the BBC’s numbers, the proportion saying that “climate change is happening and is now established as largely man-made” fell from 41% in November ’09 to 26% in February ’10.

A couple of weeks later, the Guardian reported a different poll by the ad agency Euro RSCG. This one showed that the proportion that thinks that climate change “is definitely a reality” dropped from 44% to 31% between January ’09 and January ’10. In fact, the Guardian enjoyed the poll so much, they reported it a second time, two weeks later.

So when we hear about yet another poll that shows a drop in belief or concern about climate change between last year and this year, we’re probably not seeing anything new. A check of the numbers in the YouGov poll confirms this.

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EDF Energy’s nifty press work

Posted in Climate Sock, Media on May 25th, 2010 by leo – Comments Off on EDF Energy’s nifty press work

Just had a chance to look through the data for the new YouGov poll for EDF Energy, which the Guardian wrote up yesterday.

First thoughts on reading the Guardian coverage was that it looked like a quick copy-and-paste job from a press release.

There’s some pretty selective quoting of statistics to make the case for nuclear energy:

– The baseline year for comparison jumps between 2006, 2007 and 2009 – depending on when the strongest comparison can be made;

– There’s a bizarre reference to a fall from 82% to 80% – well within the margin of error;

– Nothing is quoted that challenges EDF’s pro-nuclear narrative (e.g. that net favourability for windfarms is +61, compared with only +16 for nuclear);

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The challenges ahead for climate policy

Posted in Climate Sock, Media, Politics on May 23rd, 2010 by leo – 4 Comments

However we measure it, climate change has become a less prominent issue in the UK lately. With a new government that looks unexpectedly stable, climate campaigners can no longer count on another election coming along soon to shake things up.  Instead, they need to find ways of working with the current media and political set-up.

There are significant risks in not addressing the way climate change is currently talked about and acted on. While the coalition document suggests the new government has made a fairly good start to climate policy, this may not be sustainable if people don’t start talking and acting differently about climate change.

While climate change has never been the most prominent issue in the UK, lately it’s fallen further from the media’s attention and from most people’s consciousness. Google Trends confirms that both in terms of searches and news coverage, climate change has now dropped to well below the peaks we’ve seen since 2006.

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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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