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The Climategate Dud

by Michael Levi
December 3, 2010

Like most other climate change observers, I’ve been pretty convinced that “Climategate” – the publication of stolen e-mails from the University of East Anglia that showed climate scientists in an ugly light – has been a big contributor to American doubts about climate change. And those doubts are big: In a post earlier today, my colleague Jim Lindsay (bookmark his new blog on the domestic politics of U.S. foreign policy) flags an October Pew poll that showed only 59% of Americans believing that the earth is warming, and only 34% believing that warming is due to human activity. That’s down from 77% and 47%, respectively, in January 2007.

Here’s what I find surprising: There’s no statistically significant change in the results since the poll was last conducted in October 2009 – a month before Climategate happened. The entire drop occured in the years preceding the debacle. This is true not only at the aggregate level – it’s also true for Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, each considered alone.

The other intruiging thing is how the shifts happened. People don’t appear to have changed their minds from believing that the earth is warming due to human activity to thinking that the causes were natural or unknown. They seem to have decided that it isn’t warming at all. The polls show a steady fraction of people believing that the earth is warming due to natural causes; they also show a steady number who think that it’s warming but don’t know why. But there’s a huge swing from the “yes, it’s warming, and people are causing it” category to the “it’s not happening” one.

There are two possible explanations for this odd pattern. First, there might be much more change than my read of the survey suggests. Perhaps people are slowly sliding down the scale of belief: those who once believed in manmade climate change now think it’s natural, while those who used to think it was natural now think it isn’t happening. My hunch is that’s a bit too cute to be right. (People aren’t, by the way, shifting en masse from “it’s manmade” to “I don’t know” – there simply aren’t enough people in the “unknown causes” category to make that possible.)

The second explanation is more plausible: People who once believed that climate change is manmade haven’t come to doubt their judgment of the causes – they’ve come to think that they were wrong about the entire phenomenon in the first place. That would explain the wholesale shift between categories.

If my guess is right, it suggests that scientists communicators may need to spend more time simply convincing people that the world is warming, and less trying to make the case that it’s human caused. That goes against my personal intuition, but I long ago gave up on expecting public opinion to follow scientific logic. These patterns suggest that we need to do a better job understanding how peoples’ beliefs about change change evolve if we want to help them better understand what’s really going on.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by John Fleck

    Michael -

    This is good, but I think you jump the rails with the suggestion that “scientists may need to spend more time simply convincing people…” bit. Your final point is correct (“we need do a better job understanding how peoples’ beliefs … evolve”). But the research that exists on the problems of the linear model suggests that we shouldn’t expect scientists to do more convincing in the hopes that good outcomes will follow.

    [ML: Fair enough. I didn't mean to suggest that the good outcomes were policy ones -- I'm simply interested in helping people understand that climate change is real and substantially anthropogenic. Scientists can't do that alone, but they can help.]

  • Posted by L. Carey

    Michael, I realize that there isn’t room for a lot of nuance in a short blog post, but if one really wanted to help “people understand that climate change is real and substantially anthropogenic” it seems to me that one would have to somehow persuade the press to actually do their job. “Scientists” aren’t part of some monolithic organization with a well-oiled public affairs department to help them with a coordinated outreach campaign. As you know, in the real world, scientists work in a hodge-podge of institutions with compartmentalized sub-niches, often with poor funding and no support resources for outreach – hence scientists are very, very poorly situated to persuade the public directly.

    In the past, journalistic media have played the role of interpreting and explaining important scientific findings and issues – today, however, a whole raft of forces cuts against this function being properly performed (e.g., cutbacks in science reporters, emphasis on “he said-she said” conflict oriented reportage, multimillion dollar support for ideologically driven think tanks and tobacco style “anti-information” on climate, media desire to avoid right-wing pushback on controversial issues, rise of aggressively political major media outlets, etc.). Not to mention the issue of rampant reality-denial amongst the political class, with one entire party now dedicated to rejecting the existence of and/or significant human contribution to AGW.

    I am frankly infuriated by this situation – I try to read read widely and follow current events, but I did not even begin to grasp the gravity of the climate disruption problem until 2008 (yes, 2008) when I had to perform a due diligence review for a green energy investment proposal. Delving into summaries of the primary literature was a mind-bending experience, rather like stepping into a bad science fiction novel. So, rather than seeing this primarily as a problem of some scientists needing to be better communicators, I tend to see this as a major systemic breakdown, in which key institutions that we in the U.S. formerly depended on to inform and protect us (media and legislature) have largely abandoned that role, and in some cases are actively working in the opposite direction.

    So, if people are constantly exposed to a well-funded, repetitive drumbeat from sources that they believe trustworthy, setting out a steady diet of contrarian views, supposed “scientific dissent”, alleged bad behavior of climate scientists, alleged corruption of peer review, scorn for supposed eco-fascists – well, why would you expect that they wouldn’t begin to doubt the very existence of AGW. I don’t believe that encouraging scientists to be better communicators (as laudable as that goal may be, per se) even begins to address the underlying problem of public misunderstanding, skepticism and lack of concern for appropriate risk management in this area.

    Best regards.

  • Posted by Valerie Drayton

    I believe you are missing the fact that largest group that discounts the reality of global warming tend to be republicans, with only 11 percent of republicans believing that GW is a major concern. The spin machine that the republican party has been able to wield along with the millions spent to discredit the science, for the purpose of pushing forward corporate interest has created an environment of confusion, buried beneath smoke and mirrors.

  • Posted by anon

    Council of Foreign Relations man should know that polls can contradict each other, which is why you never use just one. Gamblers use a dozen.

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