Recent weather, the economy and media reporting all contribute to changes in public perception
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Even though there’s mounting scientific evidence that global warming is the result greenhouse gases from cars, factories and power plants, a new Stanford University-Roper national poll shows that only 30 percent of Americans believe human activities are responsible for the Earth’s warming in recent decades.
“We’re losing ground,” said Stephen Saunders, head of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization. “The evidence is getting stronger and stronger … But people hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe,” said Saunders, who’s nonprofit organization has taken a lead role in showing what the impacts of warming will be in the Rocky Mountains, and in developing a blueprint for local and regional climate action.
“People don’t like things that are anxiety creating and that make it look like the future will be worse. They don’t like things that seem to be out of control,” Saunders said.
In the poll, 28 percent said they think global warming is the result of natural causes, while 40 percent said it’s an equal combination of both natural and man-made causes. In a follow-up question, 53 percent said they would lean toward believing that warming is caused by human activity, while 38 percent leaned toward natural causes.
At the same time, more than 70 percent of people queried in the poll said that global warming will have very serious consequences for the U.S. and the world if nothing is done.
“We’ve lost a lot of ground with Republicans and Independents … It’s an issue that’s always had a sharp partisan divide,” Saunders said. A variety of more localized polls suggest that political leadership on the issue can make a difference. For example in Arizona, where Sen. John McCain, former presidential candidate, has taken a stand on global warming, polls suggest that Republicans are more likely to accept that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are the root of the problem.
The changes in public attitude and perception are concerning for Saunders, because for him, the solution lies in making sure the public understands the science, which leads to political will for changes at both the policy and individual levels.
The growing skepticism can probably be attributed to a variety of reasons, including recent publicity over leaked e-mails among climate researchers, the economy, the way the climate change story is reported in the press, fear and denial, and even recent weather patterns, which have left big parts of the northern hemisphere in deep freeze.
The leaked e-mails several months ago in the end did nothing to undermine the fundamental science of global warming. But skeptics and ideological critics played the incident for all it was worth to try and cast doubt on the massive amounts of research that all lead to the same conclusion — that global warming can be traced to increased levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.
Additionally, global warming skeptics are a vocal group, and tend to immediately jump on any media report they don’t like, responding with comments in public forums that repeat the same criticisms. Close reading of comment threads on newspaper web sites and blogs shows a relatively small group of the same people responding vociferously whenever they can, making it appear that the skepticism is more widespread than it is.
Climate-gate, as it’s been dubbed by some, also shows how the media plays a huge role in how the public perceives global warming. According to Saunders, many stories in the mainstream media give equal time and voice to global warming skeptics, which can lead readers to believe that there is still a scientific debate on the issue. But the reality is that there is overwhelming scientific consensus, with challenges coming mainly from outside the realm of climate scientists, according to Saunders. Partly because of the way the story is being reported, the Stanford-Roper poll showed that 67 percent believe there is disagreement among scientists, he explained.
The recent spell of cold weather across the U.S., Europe and parts of Asia of course have nothing to do with long-term global climate shifts, but are merely the manifestation of short-term weather patterns. Even as parts of the temperate zone shiver, temperatures over the Arctic region have soared far above normal this winter; up to 13 degrees more than the norms over parts of the region.
Saunders said the global recession of the past year probably plays a role as well. Taking significant steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is perceived as something that will cost money, and with people feeling the pinch in their pocketbooks already, they may be averse to pursuing a policy that could increase taxes of the cost of energy.
This is another point that has been played up by global warming skeptics, but it doesn’t take into account that a shift toward clean, renewable energy sources could help spur the economy and reduce energy costs in the long-term. It also doesn’t take into account the cost of doing nothing, which could be enormous even if only part of the global warming impacts play out as expected. Cleaning up after disastrous hurricanes and flooding, and adapting to rising sea levels could be many more times more expensive than taking pro-active steps to cap greenhouse gas emissions.