Climate opinion after UEA

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.

Satisfyingly, both polls were commissioned by newspapers that tried to use them as evidence of growing public doubt in man-made global warming. We’ve already seen the Times/Populus poll from early November – good poll, twisted beyond recognition in its reporting. The other is a Sunday Telegraph/ICM poll, conducted Dec 2nd-3rd (when the UEA stories were still at a peak) which was similarly reported as showing that large numbers now don’t believe in man-made global warming.

These two polls are pretty good tools for comparison as they both ask one quite similar question to measure belief in man-made global warming. The options presented to the respondents in the two polls were:

  1. “It is now an established scientific fact that climate change is largely man-made” (Populus) / “Climate change is happening and is established as being largely man-made” (ICM);
  2. “There is a widespread theory that climate change is largely man-made but this has not yet been conclusively proved” (Populus) / “Climate change is happening but is not yet proven to be man-made” (ICM);
  3. “Man-made climate change is environmentalist propaganda for which there is little or no real evidence” (Populus) / “Climate change is not happening” (ICM);
  4. “Don’t know” (both polls).

So while the wordings of the answer choices were slightly different, the sentiments were essentially the same, and we can be comfortable comparing the results.

The scores turn out to be startlingly similar:

In fact, there are no statistical differences between opinions towards man-made global warming before and after the UEA story broke.

That said, there are two health warnings that should come with this.

Firstly, we’re only looking at two polls here. Since the post-story poll was taken only a week after the story first broke, it may be that the impact hadn’t yet filtered through. The next poll to ask this question will help us be more confident in what we’ve seen here.

Finally, even if the UEA story has had no impact on belief in man-made global warming, it almost certainly has harmed the credibility of climate scientists. A Sunday Times/YouGov poll on 3rd-4th December primed respondents with the UEA story and then asked them whether they trust climate scientists to tell the truth. Not surprisingly, only 41% said yes. Since scientists/independent experts are usually the group trusted the most in such questions, this is a very low score.

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