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A Talk With Tony Leiserowitz on Public Attitudes Toward Climate Science and Policy

Poll Finds a Vast Majority of Americans See Environment vs. Economy as a "False Choice"

SOURCE: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication

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Listen to our last interview with Ed Maibach, another co-investigator on the Climate Change in the American Mind poll series. Also see the most recent edition of “Global Warming’s Six Americas” study from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the GMU Center for Climate Change Communication.

Two new polls out this month reveal interesting insights about Americans’ attitudes toward climate science and policy action.

The first poll, “Climate Change in the American Mind: Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in 2011,” is the fourth in a series of polls tracking Americans’ understanding of climate science facts since 2008. The second poll, “Public Support for Climate and Energy Policies in May 2011,” tracks Americans’ support for and how highly they prioritize climate change and energy policies. The two are different, and surprisingly, Americans’ attitudes toward the science seem to register far below their support for policy.

On the one hand, the polling shows that only 64 percent of Americans believe global warming is happening, with only 47 percent believing humans to be the main cause. Yet the other poll from the same month showed that 71 percent of Americans said addressing global warming should be a very high, high, or medium priority for Congress, and a whopping 91 percent of Americans—including 85 percent of Republicans—said developing clean energy should be a very high, high, or medium priority.

To explain this discrepancy, we talked with Dr. Tony Leiserowitz, the principal investigator of both polls and the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Sean Pool: Why do more Americans seem to support action on climate change than actually believe in climate change? Has there been a decline in the number of Americans who understand climate science overall?

“The American people long ago gave their elected officials permission to act, to move toward clean energy.”

Tony Leiserowitz: Sure. Let me take the second question first of public understanding. What we have seen since the fall of 2008 was a pretty significant decline in the belief that climate change is happening or that humans have caused it. As of last year, particularly January of last year, with our own surveys, we saw a 14-point drop in public belief that climate change was happening. This was also found by a number of other survey companies, including Gallup, Pew, and CNN, and others.

But since then, the number has climbed back up, though not to the fall 2008 levels. About half of the distance, about seven points until May of this year, we found that 64 percent of Americans said that climate change is happening.

SP: So to what can we attribute this drop in 2009 and 2010 to the rebound that we are seeing in 2011?

TL: Several things happened here; there is no one single cause. First and foremost is the economy, the economy, the economy. But secondly, and I think underappreciated, is the role of media coverage. We have colleagues who study newspaper coverage as well as television coverage, and they have found that, since 2007, newspaper coverage of this issue has dropped to less than one-third of what it was in 2007 and television coverage, things like the “CBS Evening News,” has dropped to less than one-fifth of what it was back then.

Most Americans know about this issue through what they encounter in the media. They don’t know climate scientists. They don’t read the peer-reviewed literature. They learn about this issue, which is invisible to most of us, through the media. So when the media doesn’t report the issue, it is literally out of sight. So that’s what we think has played an important role.

Andrew Light: Your work with Ed shows that they’re more undecided on the issue while other work by John Krosnick, for example, has a much lower number. So how’s that explained?

TL: The main thing is how the questions are worded. For example, John forced people to say “Yes, global warming is happening,” or “No, it isn’t.” And then only if they volunteer does he allow them to record an “I don’t know” answer.

We view that as a very important knowledge question. We view climate change to be an important scientific fact. As a part of that, we want to know who thinks it is happening and who thinks it isn’t, but just as importantly, who doesn’t know. And so we make that an explicit response option and find that 20 percent of the population consistently doesn’t know, as compared to the 3 percent that John finds. That’s the fundamental difference between the two findings: whether the option of “I don’t know” is explicitly given in the question or not. When people are asked a question with just the two options—“It is happening” or “It isn’t”—what [Krosnick] finds is that about 10 percent more people will say that it is happening. Whereas, what we find, when we give those same people the option that they don’t know, 20 percent of Americans will choose the option “I don’t know.”

We also take it a step further with our study; for the people who say that it is happening, we ask, “How sure are you that it is happening?” We do the same for those who do not believe that it is happening. We find that 50 percent on both sides say that they are really sure about their opinion. The other 50 percent, in both of those groups, are really kind of wishy-washy about this, and when you put this together with the other 20 percent who say upfront, “I don’t know,” it shows just how much movement there is on this issue. People don’t know a lot about it.

What this really says about those who say it is happening or those who say it is not happening, about half of each of those groups are unconfident, not really sure about their views, suggesting that there is more flexibility among those perspectives than what would be known from a study that asks simply “Is it happening?” or “Is it not happening?”

AL: Which is both good news and bad news for those of us in the advocacy community. On the one hand, we could lose some people if there is another “ClimateGate” in the future, but we could also get some people on-side with the right kind of education.

TL: That’s right. There are many different species of skeptics that have many different reasons for not being content. Some of those who are hardcore conspiracy theorists who think this is all a plot are really hard to convince because of their steadfast views. Plenty of others want evidence and are open to evidence. Other people base their opinions on personal experience. You know, we had a record snowstorm last year. You know, it can’t be true. Those people, we believe, are more amenable to interacting with the science if given the chance.

“Republicans, independents, and Democrats overwhelmingly support investments in clean energy.”

AL: Your second poll on policy also suggests that 76 percent of Republicans believe that there is no impact of environmental protection on economic growth, or that there is a positive impact. Don’t you find this surprising?

TL: That’s one of the things I found most interesting as well. This comes out of a longtime frustration that I have had, that one of the most commonly used measures of public support for the environment, which goes back decades, is the simple question, “Do you support environmental protection if it hurts the economy or economic growth if it hurts the environment?”

Again, it’s a forced, false choice. It’s an either-or, zero-sum game. I’ve never really liked that question because it forces people into a situation that does not reflect what they believe. So what I did was that I rewrote the question.

I asked, “Do you believe that protecting the environment hurts the economy and costs jobs, has no effect, or actually improves the economy and increases jobs?” About 82 percent of Americans believe that protecting the environment improves the economy or has no effect. 56 percent of Americans believes that protection improves the economy while 26 percent believe that it has no effect. Even 76 percent of Republicans, 74 percent of independents, and 94 percent of Democrats don’t buy into this zero-sum notion that it’s either the environment or the economy.

AL: This is important in light of last week. You have Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney, who are among the crowd of possible Republican nominees for the 2012 field and have not stepped down from their former claims as governors that climate change is real. Both, almost identically, have said that climate change exists but that now is not the time to do something about it because of the economy. But your findings suggest that this attitude only seems to resonate with about 25 percent of the Republican electorate.

TL: True, but this is an important segment of the Republican electorate. We have to remember that this is during a Republican presidential primary and that the most important thing is reaching the most hardcore voters during a primary.

We have seen that the Republican Party has gone quite away from even George W. Bush when he was president. That is, not only refusing to pass policy but also questioning the basic validity of the facts of climate science. I really think that both Huntsman and Romney have taken a risk in saying that they believe climate change is real and that humans are the main cause and that is a serious problem. The day after Romney said that, Rush Limbaugh went on the air and said, “Bye bye, nomination.” So, you know, they are in a tough spot.

SP: So you have 82 percent of the American electorate that believes that environmental protection either benefits or is neutral to the economy. But when you look at climate change in particular, another one of your results showed that 68 percent of Americans support requiring public utilities to produce a certain amount of renewable electricity, even if it would cost American families an average of $100 a year. This includes 58 percent of Republicans who would favor requiring renewable energy generation even with this hypothetical additional cost. If four-fifths of Americans believe that environmental protection is good or neutral for the economy while two-thirds of people say they would want environmental protection even if it cost the economy, how is it that members of both parties are not clamoring to capture these winning messages? These are big, big numbers in politics. Presidential elections have been waged and won on slimmer margins.

TL: I think this is a part of a larger pattern that we have seen with many surveys for years. Americans overwhelmingly support a transition to a clean energy future. Republicans, independents, and Democrats overwhelmingly support investments in clean energy, subsidies for homeowners, fuel-efficient cars, solar panels on roofs, etc. I think that everyone understands our vulnerabilities and risks for what George W. Bush called “our addiction to fossil fuels.”

Some support clean energy because they care about climate change and the environment and that renewable energy will help this. Many more conservative people do not believe in climate change but see clean energy policies as a way to deal with their own values, which are often individualistic and ones based on self-reliance. We are held hostage to our addiction to these old energy systems and imported energy from abroad. The point here, again, is that liberals, independents, and conservatives all support the same exact policies, albeit for different reasons.

SP: This brings us back to one of these big topics that we were hoping to address, which is this large gap between the vast majority of Americans who want to see action on this issue of climate change and clean energy and the slimmer majority of Americans who actually report believing in climate change. On the one hand, there is that uncertainty, even among those who say that climate change is or is not happening. And second, other imperatives for clean energy, besides climate change, such as energy independence, resource security, etc.

TL: And not only those, but also concerns of the economic competitiveness of this country, as well as concerns about public health, and the fact is that the current energy system use, such as coal, has a terrible impact on health. All people can come together around the same policy direction for different reasons, from environmental concerns to national security issues to health reasons, and even moral and religious reasons. All of those communities can support this type of policy direction.

SP: One last question: Is the American public more or less ready for climate policy today than we were two years ago, and where are we going?

TL: Well, what we have seen consistently is that the American people long ago gave their elected officials permission to act, to move toward clean energy. Again, these are not new results. There is very strong bipartisan support, and this has been true for years. So, really, the American people long ago gave their elected officials permission to act.

SP: Thanks very much again for your time.

TL: Yep, no problem, guys. Take care.

Dr. Tony Leiserowitz is the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, Dr. Andrew Light is the Coordinator of International Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress, and Sean Pool is the Assistant Editor for Science Progress. See Joe Romm’s take on our interview at Climate Progress.

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