PG poll: Scientific consensus on climate change has not permeated the public

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Despite the scientific consensus that global warming is occurring and caused by human activity, a new survey conducted for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette demonstrates that many Americans remain uncertain about the impact of climate change and the need for government action to address it.

This is contrary to some polls suggesting wide support for steps to counter the phenomenon. David W. Moore, director of the iMediaEthics survey, said the results suggest that, because of flaws in methodology or wording, some other surveys have overstated the degree of public knowledge on the issue, and the intensity of support for measures to curb carbon emissions. [See Mr. Moore’s essay in today’s Forum section, “Climate Partisans.” The poll report is available here, along with a description of the methodology.]

Mr. Moore argues that while many poll respondents will express an opinion on issues such as global warming, closer scrutiny shows that they do not have strong feelings on it one way or another. One indication of the relative lack of intense, informed views on the issue is the way responses can be influenced by outside factors. As an example, the survey of 1,000 respondents was divided into subsamples with half asked about their support for “federal government” action to regulate greenhouse gases, and the other half asked about the “Obama administration.”

Specifically, half of the respondents were asked: “Would you approve or disapprove of the federal government requiring power plants to reduce greenhouse gases, even if it would mean higher utility bills for consumers, or are you unsure?” The other half were asked: “Would you approve or disapprove of the Obama administration requiring power plants ...”

The results differed significantly with the use of the name Obama eliciting a margin of support of 42 percent to 28 percent, compared with 36 percent approval and 32 percent disapproval for the federal government. That may seem counterintuitive, given the president’s overall job approval ratings, but Mr. Moore explained that while the use of the Obama name reduced support among Republicans, it increased support, by a greater margin, among independents and Democrats.

Republicans disapproved of “federal government” regulation by a margin of 51-27; but opposed “Obama administration” regulation by a margin of 48-18. Independents disapproved of “federal government” regulation, 28-26, but that turned around with the mention of “Obama administration.” In that case, independents approved of the prospective regulation, 36-27. For Democrats, the mention of Obama had an even more positive effect, boosting approval from 50-16, to 64-13. In both cases, about a third of the sample said they were undecided.

Pointing to another way that wording can prejudice polling results, Mr. Moore noted another survey that asked people repeatedly about “the problem of climate change,” conditioning them to consider it a problem regardless of their views before taking the survey.

Beyond the uncertainty that wording can introduce into a survey, Mr. Moore and the iMediaEthics poll drilled down further to assess how much people actually cared about the proposed regulation, asking if they would be upset if the regulations were imposed or not. In his analysis of the results, Mr. Moore pointed out that, “Many respondents immediately acknowledged that they wouldn’t be upset if the opposite happened to what they had just said. The net result, 30 percent strongly favored the Obama administration trying to curb greenhouse gases; 22 percent strongly opposed the idea, with the rest not caring one way or the other.’’

Mr. Moore said that the relative lack of intense views on the issue was consistent with other findings that showed that many Americans are uncertain about the impact of climate change and of the broad consensus among climate scientists that climate change is a man-made problem.

“Just 41 percent of Americans are confident that ‘most scientists agree that climate change is happening now caused mainly by human activities,’ while 18 percent firmly believe “there is little agreement among scientists’ on the issue and the rest are unsure.”

Mr. Moore suggests at least two lessons from the divergence between these poll findings and those of some other surveys showing greater support for government action. One is that environmental activists still face a significant challenge in recruiting deep public support for government actions such as the greenhouse gas regulations recently promulgated by the Obama administration.

The second is that readers should be wary of surveys, “which — however well intentioned, — manipulate respondents into giving answers that sound positive but don’t represent the views of the larger population.”

James O’Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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