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

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.

The Guardian data is from five months later than the ONS data

Maybe something’s changed in the last few months. I don’t know why this would be, especially since we saw a couple of weeks ago that concern about the climate seems to map the economy, and things are hardly great at the moment. We’ve had another freezing winter in the UK, and the immediate effect of the UEA stories should easily have worn off by the time the ONS fieldwork was done in August. One possibility is that if (as arguably is the case) the way climate stories have been reported in the last six months or so has been less focused on apparent public doubts, it might have had an impact on the way people are responding to the questions.

And one final thought:

There’s some funky stuff going on with the demographics in the Guardian poll

As they rightly say, “an analysis of those who think climate change poses no threat reveals them to be predominantly men (70%) and about twice as likely to be over 65 and to have voted Conservative in 2010 than the general population”. I think this is fairly at odds with what we’ve seen before, at least in terms of the starkness of the contrast.  Something for a closer look.

* Thanks to the pirc and carbonbrief lot for letting me know about these polls.

  1. Guy says:

    Great article Leo, neat analysis.

    Couple of thoughts:

    – Are the demographics of climate sceptics really so odd? I think others have discussed this before, e.g. http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2009/11/02/death-denial/. Perhaps you mean that the polling data on this is now hardening?

    – Slightly tangential to the main thrust of your article, but you link through to a graph that plots economic health against climate concern. I’ve gotta say it doesn’t look that convincing to me – GDP performance only seems to track the last downturn, and doesn’t explain the 2006-7 upsurge of interest in climate change at all. Two alternative possible correlations, that I’d love to see you explore in future if poss, are these:

    1) Media interest, as for e.g. charted by Max Boykoff, http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/media_coverage/ – clearly itself symptomatic of other things going on, most obviously the big spike around Copenhagen, but what explains the big upsurge around 2006-7?;

    2) Weather events. Weather is invariably confused with climate and often seized on in the media to support or refute global warming. It would be amazing to plot weather events against both media coverage and polling, e.g. the hot US summer of 1988 that saw the first glimmers of public interest in what was then called ‘the greenhouse effect’, through the UK floods of 2004, 2007 & 2009, and the recent cold winters with their accompanying (slight) decline in climate concern.

    I guess the problem with doing this is still poor quality polling data over the long term. 🙁 ?

    • Leo says:

      Cheer Guy, and sorry for the slow reply.

      1 – From what I’ve seen before, the demographics are indeed unusual in this one. Maybe surprisingly, I hadn’t seen much evidence to demonstrate that people who are less worried about climate change are significantly more likely to be older. This was a previous post I did on it, which suggested actually not much correlation: http://www.climatesock.com/2010/01/age-gender-and-the-climate/ (ahem, see comments to that post).

      Politics-wise, less of a surprise – I showed pre-election that it was less of an issue for Tory voters than for others: http://www.leftfootforward.org/2010/03/the-electoral-impact-of-climate-change/.

      Why this is different I don’t know, and I want to look into.

      2 – On the graph (http://www.climatesock.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Global-concern6.jpg), yes fair enough, it’s not great all the way through. I think you’re spot on with your two explanations for the spike around ’06/’07, i.e. increased media interest, which dovetailed with the extreme weather (floods etc) at that time. But, what I do think is important and valid is the unprecedented fall the chart suggests over the last year or so. This, I think, is related to the economy – and one way to demonstrate that would be if I could find other data for level of concern about other issues. If they fall off as well, it would suggest that the economy is pushing everything to the backseat.

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