A recent poll suggests that high-profile controversies regarding climate science are weakening public confidence in the validity of global warming, And that could endanger congressional efforts to pass climate legislation.
In 2008, 71 percent of respondents said they thought global warming was happening, while 10 percent thought it wasn’t. This year, only 57 percent thought global warming was a reality, and the number of doubters increased to 20 percent, according to a poll conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change and the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
“We’ve seen some pretty significant changes over the past year,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change. “We found a very significant drop in the percentage of Americans who think global warming is happening, and a significant drop in those who think humans are responsible. Generally speaking, we’ve seen a drop in public concern about the issue.”
The poll also asked respondents whether they think global warming is caused by human activities, natural environmental changes, or both. In 2008, 57 percent said it was caused by human activities. This year, only 47 percent think so.
That changing public opinion about climate change could affect current efforts to pass a bipartisan climate bill being sponsored by Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Ind.), of Connecticut, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina.
Ahead of the vote, Texas, Virginia, and Alabama officials have filed challenges to the Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that man-made greenhouse gases threaten public health. And Republican senators have cited controversial hacked e-mails from climate scientists and mistakes in reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as reasons to oppose a climate bill that would limit carbon dioxide emissions.
“In the US, it’s going to be more difficult [to pass climate legislation] than it might have been a year ago,” says Adil Najam, a lead author of two IPCC reports and the director of Boston University’s Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future. “The same legislation is going to find more opposition, because the political mood has changed.”
Dr. Leiserowitz attributes that change in political mood documented by his poll to a string of scandals and external factors such as the economy and the media.
“This is a perfect storm,” he says. “It’s been called the winter of climate science discontent.”
The first issue?
“It’s the economy, ” says Leiserowitz. “The economy is dwarfing everything. It’s pushed [climate change] off the priority list.”
The media have also largely neglected covering climate change, apart from the Copenhagen conference late last year, effectively removing the issue from most peoples’ radar, he says.
“Climate change is abstract, it’s distant — it’s Bangladesh in 50 years. The media play a critical role of reminding us of it, so if it’s not in the media, it’s not in our attention,” he says.
Politicians and advocacy groups have also been increasingly successful in shaping public opinion and stalling climate legislation, he adds. “Utilities, fossil fuels, chambers of commerce – certainly there’s a lot of political push-back.”
Finally he says, a string of recent scandals and errors found in prominent climate change reports have eroded public confidence in the issue.
Climate change skeptics have found a series of mistakes in 2007 report by the IPCC, a United Nations scientific body considered the authority on global warming. The report concluded that human activity and man-made emissions of heat-trapping gases are partly to blame for atmospheric and oceanic warming.
The most embarrassing mistake: The IPCC report said Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035 because of global warming. That finding, which even climate change advocates describe as "crazy," was erroneously picked up from an Indian news report – not an independent scientific study.
The report also said 55 percent of the Netherlands is below sea level. It is actually 26 percent.
“These mistakes suggest the review process didn’t work properly, and the IPCC needs to do much better job of enforcing its rules, frankly,” says Leiserowitz. "But it doesn’t cast doubt on the fact that glaciers are melting or that climate change is happening and human caused.”
The mistakes, say Najam of Boston University may have lasting effects on the public’s confidence in science. “I hope what we are not seeing is an erosion of trust in science,” he says. “Societies need to be able to trust science, and scientists need to inspire trust. Climate scientists have to be more careful.”