Global warming: Politics overwhelm the science

Earth. PHOTO COURTESY NASA.

Split between parties plants seeds of doubt

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The science of climate change may be based on a widespread consensus, but that is not reflected by the political realities in Washington, where the issue has polarized Democrats and Republicans along party lines.

And that schism has led to an erosion of public belief that global warming is a threat human health and welfare. Public acceptance of the climate change threat was greatest in 2006-2007, when there was broad agreement among lawmakers on the issue, according to Ohio State University professor J. Craig Jenkins, who recently co-authored a study on public climate change perceptions. Since those years of bipartisan agreement,  public concern has dropped.

National political leaders influence how much Americans worry about the threat of climate change more than extreme weather events and the work of scientists the study found.

“It is the political leaders in Washington who are really driving public opinion about the threat of climate change,” Jenkins said. “The politics overwhelms the science.”

The study found that the state of the economy was the second biggest factor affecting perceptions of climate threat. The incidence of extreme weather events had no effect on American’s view of the climate change threat.

New research published in scientific journals had no impact on public views, but major reports on climate change and articles in popular science magazines did have a small but noticeable impact. The work of advocacy groups also had some effect. The quantity of media coverage also affected perceived threat levels, but that coverage was mostly a function of what political leaders and advocates were saying.

“The most important factor remained the polarized positions taken by Democrats and Republicans in Washington,” Jenkins said. “When our political leaders can’t agree on whether climate change is a threat, the majority of people can’t either. The public is divided because our political leaders are polarized.”

Jenkins conducted the study with Robert Brulle of Drexel University and Jason Carmichael of McGill University.  Their results appear online in the journal Climatic Change and will appear in a future print edition.

The researchers created a U.S. Climate Change Threat Index that measures how public opinion has changed on the issue between January 2002 and December 2010.  To create the index, they used a method that is regularly used in social research on public opinion, but has never been used specifically on the climate change issue, Jenkins said.

They combined data from 74 separate surveys over the nine-year period to create a quarterly measure of public concern over climate change.  Included were 14 different questions from 6 different polling organizations, which were administered to 84,086 respondents.

They calculated the percentage of respondents choosing a particular response – for example, the percentage that sees global climate change as a “serious problem” or “major threat” — over time.

The researchers examined how changes in the threat index were affected by five factors: extreme weather events, public access to accurate scientific information, media coverage, the impact of major advocacy groups, and cues from political elites.  They also took into account other factors that may influence views on climate change, including the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), unemployment rate, war deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the price of oil.

The impact of political leaders was measured by Congressional press release statements on climate change issued by Republicans and Democrats, Senate and House roll call votes on climate-change bills, and the number of Congressional hearings on climate.

Advocacy was measured by the number of stories on climate change in major environmental magazines and conservative magazines, as well as the number of New York Times mentions of the movie An Inconvenient Truth, a popular 2006 documentary with Al Gore, the former vice president and 2000 Democratic Presidential candidate as a narrator, that supported the idea that climate change is a threat.

Jenkins said changes in the factors examined in the study can help explain how the threat index has fluctuated between 2002 and 2010.

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  1. [...] warming goal now 'optimistic' – French scientistsPhysOrg.comFinancial Post -Summit County Citizens Voiceall 27 news [...]

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