Growing climate skepticism in the US

Red leaf in a pond

In an awfully pathetic development, a recent poll conducted of 1,500 American adults by the Pew Research Center found that the proportion agreeing that “there is strong scientific evidence that the earth has gotten warmer over the past few decades” has fallen from 71% to 57%. Now, only 36% of people agree that human activities are the drivers of temperature increase.

This is an astonishing result, a year after the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report argued that “[w]arming of the climate system is unequivocal” and that “[m]ost of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic (human) greenhouse gas concentrations.” It is especially sad given the fact that the supposed scientific debate about the causes of climate change is largely mythical. Despite that, status quo supporting groups have apparently done an excellent job of misleading the public, perhaps aided by the increased concern that now exists about the state of the global economy.

The basics of the situation are quite simple. No competent chemist would disagree that burning fossil fuels adds carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere. Similarly, it is simple to observe that air with more CO2 blocks more outgoing infrared radiation, warming the planet. Both of these things are explained by chemical and physical theory, and observed in practice. Admittedly, it takes more work to understand why this warming could be dangerous; still, the scientific backing for that claim is incredibly robust and based on peer-reviewed scientific work done around the world over the course of many decades.

Obviously, a lot more work needs to be done debunking climate change deniers, both by directly responding to misleading arguments and through other means. The terrifying thing here is that our actions now will have irrevocable consequences, largely beginning a few decades out, but continuing at least for thousands of years. The fact that so many people remain confused about climate – and very few support effort on the scale required to deal with it – is really bad news for future generations.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

9 thoughts on “Growing climate skepticism in the US”

  1. Yes, bad coverage by big media, including the NYT’s Revkin, is one reason there has been a modest decline since April 2008 in the number of Americans who know that there is solid (in fact, overwhelming) evidence the Earth is warming and humans are the primary cause (see here). Big media “did” the global warming story in 2006 and 2007 when Gore’s movie came out and then throughout 2007 when the IPCC released its four major summary reports. Looking for a new angle, the NY Times and others played up the global cooling myth. Now couple that with a ramped up disinformation campaign from the deniers who keep repeating the global cooling myth and continued lame messaging from the scientific community (see “Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1“) and a progressive community filled with people who have been persuaded by bad analysis that they shouldn’t even talk about “global warming” (see Messaging 101b: EcoAmerica’s phrase ‘our deteriorating atmosphere’ isn’t going to replace ‘global warming’ — and that’s a good thing). That’s a recipe for an underinformed public.

  2. Poll finds sharp rise in global warming skepticism

    There are good reasons not to get too worked up about public-opinion polling on issues like climate change and energy. Polls confirm, over and over, that the public opinion is malleable—so much rides on the wording of questions. And most people don’t analyze policy in their spare time, so why ask them about cap and trade? Only 24 percent of Americans could even identify cap and trade as an energy/environment policy in a May Rasmussen poll. Twenty-nine percent thought it was a Wall Street regulation.

    Still, it’s hard not to be troubled by a Pew Research Center poll released today. Conducted three weeks ago among 1,500 adults reached on cell phones and landlines, the poll finds a significant drop in the number of Americans who believe global warming is happening, is human-caused, and is a serious problem.

    The poll found that only 57 percent of respondents believe that “the earth is getting warmer,” compared with 71 percent in April 2008. Pew has asked similar sets of questions six times since June 2006 and has never found such a dramatic rise in skepticism.

    What does the Pew poll mean?

    The big news yesterday was a Pew poll showing a precipitous decline in the number of people who believe there is strong scientific evidence for anthropocentric climate change. Jon covered the details pretty well, including some reasons it should be taken with a grain of salt.

    It’s peculiar that these polls are often taken as a judgment on the science itself, like Believers and Deniers are two teams duking it out and public acceptance is the score of who’s got better facts. That’s not how science works at all. As 18 leading U.S. scientific organizations reminded the Senate this week (PDF), we know that “climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.” We know this in the best way that we know how to know things, through multiple lines of evidence and multi-layer peer review involving scientists from dozens of countries. We know it with a far greater degree of confidence than we know the vast bulk of the economic, political, and folk psychological theories that guide our collective lives.

    These are, as far as developed civilizations have been able to determine, the institutions and practices that produce the most trustworthy knowledge about the natural world. If we reject their conclusions—or pretend their conclusions can be upended by a blog post or public opinion poll—we abandon one of the few remaining arbiters of consensus reality. If peer-reviewed science has no special status, then every aspect of human or ecosystem health is partisan. Every policy-relevant matter of fact is decided by shouty blog comments and bad cable tv. Everything is contestable: postmodernism, courtesy of conservatism. (See: Chris Mooney.)

  3. October 21, 2009

    Dear Senator:

    As you consider climate change legislation, we, as leaders of scientific
    organizations, write to state the consensus scientific view.

    Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is
    occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the
    greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.
    These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence,
    and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of
    the vast body of peer-reviewed science. Moreover, there is strong
    evidence that ongoing climate change will have broad impacts on
    society, including the global economy and on the environment. For the
    United States, climate change impacts include sea level rise for coastal
    states, greater threats of extreme weather events, and increased risk of
    regional water scarcity, urban heat waves, western wildfires, and the
    disturbance of biological systems throughout the country. The severity
    of climate change impacts is expected to increase substantially in the
    coming decades.

    If we are to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change, emissions
    of greenhouse gases must be dramatically reduced. In addition,
    adaptation will be necessary to address those impacts that are already
    unavoidable. Adaptation efforts include improved infrastructure design,
    more sustainable management of water and other natural resources,
    modified agricultural practices, and improved emergency responses to
    storms, floods, fires and heat waves.

    We in the scientific community offer our assistance to inform your
    deliberations as you seek to address the impacts of climate change.

    American Association for the Advancement of Science
    American Chemical Society
    American Geophysical Union
    American Institute of Biological Sciences
    American Meteorological Society
    American Society of Agronomy
    American Society of Plant Biologists
    American Statistical Association
    Association of Ecosystem Research Centers
    Botanical Society of America
    Crop Science Society of America
    Ecological Society of America
    Natural Science Collections Alliance
    Organization of Biological Field Stations
    Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics
    Society of Systematic Biologists
    Soil Science Society of America
    University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

  4. It is indeed rather sad that people deal with economic distress by denying the reality of climate change. Part of the problem is that people have been effectively terrified into thinking that taking action to address climate change will automatically kill jobs and hurt working people.

  5. 22 October 09
    New Pew Center Poll Confirms The Effects of Climate Confusion Campaign

    But, as I explained to the Guardian newspaper today, “a big part of this problem is this campaign to mislead Americans about climate science. This is a very sophisticated group of people who know how to create doubt and confusion and they have done a very good job of it.”

    This downturn in public understanding of the climate crisis confirms that the corporate investment in climate confusion is paying a dividend. The public confusion campaigns launched by ACCCE, the Chamber, National Association of Manufacturers, American Petroleum Institute and a host of others, are all deliberately targeted at moving the dial on public opinion.

    These Astroturf groups have set a clear and specific goal of muddying the waters, and this poll shows that their strategy is working. Front groups and lobbyists for dirty industry have effectively sown the seeds of confusion within the American public.

  6. Why the sudden surge in climate change denial? Could it be about something else altogether?

    By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, 2nd November 2009

    There is no point in denying it: we’re losing. Climate change denial is spreading like a contagious disease. It exists in a sphere which cannot be reached by evidence or reasoned argument; any attempt to draw attention to scientific findings is greeted with furious invective. This sphere is expanding with astonishing speed.

    A survey last month by the Pew Research Centre suggests that the proportion of Americans who believe there’s solid evidence that the world has been warming over the past few decades has fallen from 71% to 57% in just 18 months(1). Another survey, conducted in January by Rasmussen Reports, suggests that, due to a sharp rise since 2006, US voters who believe that global warming is the result of natural causes (44%) now outnumber those who believe it is caused by human action (41%)(2).

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