MorgueFile Main StreetChrista Marshall of Climatewire reports in the New York Times today that it’s been a “summer of polling discontent” when it comes to public opinion numbers on climate change. The question at hand is why some recent surveys show increased skepticism about human-caused climate change and others show the opposite.

Undeniably, polling is imperfect. It’s an attempt at neatly quantifying what is an untidy and unquestionably qualitative world of words, perception, and interpretation. The way a question is phrased can make a world of difference in the way people respond. But I wonder if the skepticism question is worth asking in the first place. For my part, I’m ready to move on—and, I’m no pollster, but I think the public is too.

  • Here’s a snapshot of the “polling discontent.” The Pew Center reported in December that there was a 14-point drop between 2008 and 2009 in the percentage of Americans believing global warming was happening and a more than 10-point drop in the percentage who said it was caused by human activity. Gallup had similar findings. On the other hand, Jon A. Krosnick, conducting research for Stanford (funded by the National Science Foundation), has found as recently as June 2010, that 75 percent of Americans in his survey say they believe that human behavior was substantially responsible for any warming that has occurred. Fully 86 percent of respondents to his survey said they wanted the federal government to limit the amount of air pollution that businesses emit, and 76 percent favored government limiting business’s emissions of greenhouse gases in particular.

    The dueling pollsters are the first to agree that different wording of the questions can yield different results. Krosnick says Pew measured what people had “read or heard about,” not what they actually thought. Similarly, he said, Gallup was not measuring people’s real feelings by beginning questions with a mention of what has been in the news lately—but rather, measuring their confidence in the news media. Here’s Krosnick in a June NYT op-ed:

    Questions in other polls that sought to tap respondents’ personal beliefs about the existence and causes of warming violated two of the cardinal rules of good survey question design: ask about only one thing at a time, and choose language that makes it easy for respondents to understand and answer each question.

    Krosnick’s statements prompted rebuttals from polling directors at Pew and Gallup. Basically they admit that no instrument is perfect—no question a perfect measure of public sentiment. Krosnick’s included! Their point is that there’s no reason to discount a whole slew of polling that shows increased skepticism because of one or two that show the opposite. This seems fair. One poll that tells us (me, anyway) what we want to believe (that the public’s with us) isn’t enough to blow all the other data out of the water.

    Krosnick just came out with new survey results that showed more than 70 percent of Americans in three states—Florida, Maine and Massachusetts—support government limits on greenhouse gases and think a rise in the world’s temperature is caused “mostly or partly” by human activity. More than 67 percent of people in the three states also favored a cap-and-trade system when the concept was explained to them. And, more than half of respondents in all three states would support a tax increase of $150 yearly if it would lead to an 85 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. He also found that a hypothetical candidate mentioning belief in man-made climate change in a speech garnered more support than one who did not mention the issue at all. In Florida, support rose by 24 percent for such a candidate.

    Meanwhile, Rasmussen reported that a paltry 34 percent think that “human activity” is the cause of global warming. And another pollster, according to Marshall—Christopher Borick of Muhlenberg College—is about to release data showing that the percentage of Americans who think human activity is behind warming temperatures has gone up since 2008, not down.

    So, who do we believe? My best answer: All of the above. The best pollsters are cautious about drawing sweeping conclusions from any of it. All of it together tells a story—and each question and its responses should be carefully interpreted based on specific wording (does it reveal more about respondents’ actual beliefs or current salience among a host of other concerns, for example?)

    But my bigger concern is that pollsters, media, and policy-champions get bogged down in this back and forth about the public’s relative level of concern/salience, level of skepticism, level of distrust of media reports, etc., etc., etc. and misses a trend that I’ve seen in recent polling that transcends all this and that seems consistent enough across time and surveys to call real: when it comes to energy and climate policy solutions, the public is eager—no matter where they stand on the science.

    In other words, forget the science debate. It’s over. (How’s that for a sweeping conclusion?) That’s my opinion. Polls show that skepticism will rise and fall—with the times and with the phrasing of polling questions. What really matters is that when it comes to climate and energy policy that unhitches our economy from dirty fossil fuels and sets us up for cleaner alternatives—and the jobs and business opportunities that come with them—the public is ready—no matter how you ask them about it. If you want the numbers, see my recent post on energy policy polling.

    Image: MorgueFile.