Sunday, 10 August 2008

20 years of public opinion about global warming

A talk in which Matthew Nisbett and Chris Mooney speak about science communication and how the reference frame of the audience itself is an important factor in how the communication is used in creating a personal opinion was posted before on this blog. Today i'd like to have a little deeper look at a couple of things related to it.

In a paper tittled The polls - trends, twenty years of public opinion about global warming Matthew Nisbett and Teresa Myers review 20 years of polls on the subject of global warming.

One of their conclusions is that indeed, the reference frame of the audience is a factor in believing whether or not Global Warming is a reality.:

“Trust in scientists likely remains a factor in perceptions of the scientific evidence relative to global warming. According to ABC News polls taken in 2006 and 2007, in each year, only 32 percent of Americans answered that they trust the things scientists say about the environment "completely" or "a lot" compared to 24 percent and 27 percent who trust what scientists say "little" or "not at all."

Another interesting read is the paper: Signals and noise. Mass-media coverage of climate change in the USA and the UK by Boykoff and Rajan :

In 1998, the New York Times revealed that opponents of international climate policy had put together a plan with a US$600,000 budget to recruit scientists “who share the industry's views of climate science and to train them in public relations so they can help convince journalists, politicians, and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to justify controls on greenhouse gases…” (Cushman, 1998). This plan—assembled at the American Petroleum Institute offices in Washington, DC, USA—targeted science writers, editors, columnists and television network correspondents in order to affect media discourse on the human contribution to climate change. The proposal of the group stated that it would measure success “by counting, among other things, the percentage of news articles that raise questions about climate science and the number of radio talk show appearances by scientists questioning the prevailing views”.

Don’t hesitate to also having a look at the references Boykoff and Rajan use. Even though they may be not very recent, they certainly do give an insight in how the sceptical movement was able to challenge the public’s understanding of the consensus on global warming by giving a closer look at the tactics used. Example given : Defeating Kyoto: The Conservative Movement’s Impact on U.S. Climate by McCright & Dunlap :

By systematically analyzing the thematic content of 224 documents on global warming produced and/or circulated by 14 influential conservative think tanks between 1990 and 1997, we (2000) identify three major counter-claims through which the conservative movement challenged the framing of global warming by the environmental community.

First, the conservative movement claimed that the evidentiary basis of global warming is weak, if not wrong.

Second, conservatives argued that the net effect of global warming would be beneficial should it occur.

Third, conservatives argued that the policies proposed to ameliorate the alleged problem of global warming would do more harm than good.


skeptics were actually cited as sources in more articles than the elite climate scientists in 1995, and in 1996 and 1997 the number of citations for both groups was approximately equal

The thing which puzzled me personally for a long time is why mosts denialists are always located in a very small part of the political spectrum. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably a combination of several factors, closely related to the reference frame Nisbett talked about and which seem to be in the case of global warming:

1) A general mistrust in science which is more dominantly at the conservative side (i launched before a hypothesis the root for this maybe could be the theory of evolution they reject, the rejection of the science underpinning evolution being a fertile ground for rejecting science in total)

2) a view towards the government which in my opinion isn’t just ‘critical’ anymore, but simply ‘paranoid’ (if i find the time, i’ll reason how i'm coming to this conclusion), in which people express a certain fears like p.ex.the fear GW is nothing but a tool used with the aim to install a “world government”. A fear for which they are unable to give solid arguements, it's more a gut feeling.

3) Last but not definately not least there’s the fear of higher taxes. The best way to be sure ‘them’ will not rise taxes is ‘killing’ the topic which could be responsible for such a raise, here being global warming. This seems to be a very widespread way of thinking. When discussing on internetfora, it seldomly takes more than five posts before a denialist will mention something about raising taxes.

In a certain way, thats what this quote from the McCright & Dunlap paper also states.

In this context, it is not surprising that the conservative movement turned its attention to global warming. Despite assertions that environmentalism represents a new ideology that is orthogonal to traditional liberalism-conservatism (e.g., Paehlke 1989), studies consistently and conservatism to be negatively related to pro-environmental attitudes and actions among the general public and especially among political elites, such as members of Congress (Dunlap, Xiao, and McCright 2001). A key reason is that pursuit of environmental protection often involves government action that is seen as threatening economic libertarianism, a core element of conservatism. Yet, most environmental protection up to the present—such as regulations designed to control air or water pollution—was accomplished without posing a major threat to industrial capitalism, despite protests from the corporate sector

In conclusion, several thing come together in the global warming denialism :

-an audience willing to hear it’s not true, for a combination of reasons, the most important mentioned before

-an industrial lobby willing to kill the topic to defend it's interests

-right wing think thanks for whom the climate topic is a threat to the libertarian fear of simply having a government, let alone having a government ‘acting’ on something. A lot of the ‘lead’sceptics have a history of denying other scientific conclusions which in the past lead to a possibility of a government acting to solve the problems associated with the topic, like the relation smoking-cancer, the scientific conclusion about health threats coming from asbestos, the hole in the ozone layer, UV- skin cancer, etc, etc

Those things in a certain way have one common crosspoint : the surroundings of the American Republican Party and this common basis seems to have been a good meetingplace for people willing to attack science for whatever is their personal reason to do. The experience of the tobacco-lobby a ready-to-use tool to systematically attack science was a ready to use tool being available and having proved it's use already as the figures from the polls show.

Chris Mooney wrote a book “the Republican war on science” in which he has a closer look to the subject and how all those things come together.

One thing is sure : the atack on science by creating doubt so far has been rather succesful :

Specific to judgments about whether or not the greenhouse effect or global warming is real, as early as 1992, 68 percent answered in the affirmative. Yet this number declined in 1994 to 57 percent, a trend likely promoted by the strategic communication efforts of conservative think tanks to boost skepticism about the problem (McCright and Dunlap, 2000)

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