All Is Not Lost

I really enjoyed reading two recent polls conducted by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Communication. In particular, the results made me wonder why the US government still hasn’t passed a climate bill.

For example, US presidents have been saying for over a decade that it is unfair to force their industries to reduce emissions if developing countries do not have similar targets. However, only 8% of American adults share this view, and 65% believe that “the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do.” 77% agree that CO2 should be regulated, and 65% would like to see an international treaty signed.

The only solution which had less than 50% support was a tax on gasoline, even if it was revenue-neutral: offset by a decrease in income tax rates. This opposition can’t really be a case of people worrying about money. In this hypothetical situation, taxes aren’t being increased – they’re just being moved around, in a way that actually gives people more control over how much they are charged. Perhaps the public would prefer a more laissez-faire approach, or perhaps they had a knee-jerk reaction to the word “tax”. It’s not like the revenue-neutral aspect of this solution is well-known to most.

When the poll was broken down by political party, there were some surprising results that ran contrary to what one hears in the halls of Congress. 64% of Republicans support regulating CO2. Only 30% think that protecting the environment reduces economic growth and costs jobs.

Overall, the poll showed very strong support among Americans for action that still hasn’t happened, largely because a very vocal minority has had a disproportionate influence on the policy debate. If there was a referendum today, Kyoto targets and the cap-and-trade bill would pass with flying colours.

This support was even more interesting when compared to the questions regarding science. Only 61% of Americans think that the Earth is warming, and only 50% think that it is due to human activities. 45% think “there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening”, and only 34% were aware of the existing consensus.

The discrepancy between scientific understanding of the issue and support for mitigation shows that Americans, in general, practice risk management when it comes to climate change. Even if they’re not sure whether or not there is a problem, they understand what is at risk, and are willing to take action to prevent major consequences. Greg Craven, you got your wish.

I think that the misconception of a voracious scientific debate, apart from being perpetrated by the media, stems partly from the fact that most of the public lacks the experience to distinguish between scientific and quasi-scientific debates. Competing hypotheses, published in leading journals, seen as the frontier of the field….that’s a scientific debate. Editorials, written by anyone other than a scientist publishing in the field, claiming to refute an overwhelming consensus? Can’t even come close. However, I suspect that many would categorize the second as “scientific debate”, simply because it’s their only encounter with science.

All is not lost, though. 81% of Americans trust scientists as a source of information about global warming. That’s more than they trust any other source that was mentioned in the question. And 20%, 27%, and 29% say that they need a lot more, some more, or a little more information, respectively. Maybe all that needs to happen is for us to speak louder – because people are ready and willing to listen.

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7 thoughts on “All Is Not Lost

  1. Americans think ‘tax’ is a four letter word, so I’m sure the lack of support for a gas tax was indeed a knee-jerk reaction. Nevertheless, the rest of the poll results are surprisingly positive. Despite being very misinformed on the subject, it’s good to see that a majority of Americans still want to address it. Now if we could only get Congress to listen to the will of the majority.

  2. I would be very interested in reviewing the poll questions asked, and in knowing just how the poll was run. Was it in one area? How big was the sample? What time (or times) of day were the questions asked? What kind of error level? Irritating questions I know but this knowledge is part and parcel to understanding the results. I am a registered skeptic, and one of the reasons I am so biased is because of the “spin” and “sensationalizing” that is done in so many ways and so many times. So, as the tabloids say, än inquiring mind, wants to know”.

    Most of your questions are answered if you click on the link and download the polls. I’m sure there is also someone at the Center for Climate Communication you could talk to if you have more questions. -Kate

  3. (Kate basically said this already, so this mostly is a redundant expansion.) One can imagine an issue with the concept that “81% of Americans trust scientists as a source of information about global warming.” That issue is the number of people who think Watts, Monckton, et al are “scientists” worthy of trust on the topic, which feeds back into the post’s point about science vs quasi-science. The same confusion probably drives part of the ““there is a lot of disagreement among scientists” sentiment (much of the remainder probably being “X deg C vs Y deg C shows that the scientists disagree” concept). Narrowing the question to “peer reviewed published scientists” probably doesn’t resolve that for the slice of the public who either don’t know what peer review publication is, or think the sideshow performers are peer review published. That inability to distinguish black from white would seem to get them and the need for action trampled at the zebra crossing. A broader question is whether the modern H. sapiens sloth-ordinalis will tolerate any lifestyle disruption for the future good of all species.

  4. “A broader question is whether the modern H. sapiens sloth-ordinalis will tolerate any lifestyle disruption for the future good of all species.”

    From what I can see, the answer to that on many levels is a simple ‘no.’

  5. Kate, I guess I wasn’t as clear as I could have been. I like to read the questions posed then see the results. That alone can tell more about bias or “loading”. I do subscribe to the old adage (can’t remember who said it, but as I recall it was about polls) there are 3 things in polls. Lies, Damn lies, and statistics.

    A short aside for Quincy. WUWT, has posted (today) on his website a list of skeptics (deniers) that may muddy the waters as to the “scientists disagree concept” There is a posted list of published scientists, with the number of papers and citeings listed to their credit.
    Because they disagree, with AGW, are they now no longer “scientific”? They are published and peer reviewed. Or are we going to get into real nit picking here. Watts and Moncton have never said that either of them are scientists. They are deniers. I have never read or heard anything from either of them that states or infers that there is not climate change. The disagreement has only been toward whether or not climate change is “man made” and if so, how much of it is man made.

    Unfortunately the strident voices and those who can and will make fortunes from this have polarised the camps. No longer do we have the “hey did you read the paper by ………… and the rebutal by ___________? Now we have, You uneducated idiot you do not have the skills or the education to understand what I am saying.

    Oh well we will be onward and upward here at least.

    I don’t like insults either – that’s why I have a comment policy. However, I do rely on relative credibility to gauge the probability that a theory is right.

    Be careful with lists like that – really check them out. Often the published papers they link to actually aren’t disputing the mainstream view, or they were retracted (eg Baliunas’ sunspot paper), or they were published in a fringe journal called Energy&Environment which isn’t considered by most scientists to hold any credibility, and isn’t even on the Web of Science database. It really only exists so that skeptics can publish somewhere.

    I think we can probably dig up lots of instances of Watts and Monckton saying that the world is not warming. Any takers? -Kate

  6. I think we can probably dig up lots of instances of Watts and Monckton saying that the world is not warming. Any takers? -Kate

    You mean, just this last week? (Not the clearest example of it, but it was just this week.) As for Monckton, I’d suggest going through John Abraham’s dissection of a typical Monckton talk and looking at not only how frequently Monckton says there’s no anthropogenic component to climate change, but how often his sources say the exact opposite.

    Winnipegman, there is a recent book on the subject of statistical spin that I’d suggest looking into. It’s a quick read and illustrates why the proper response to some of these “analyses” isn’t to give them equal time, and the only reason we’re giving them credence at all is due to mass mathematical illiteracy. (To make a similar point, there’s this delightful story. But that’s tangential to this topic.)

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