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Attitudes on climate change, environmental science and clean energy

Dan Farber, professor of law | December 17, 2012

A new Associated Press poll reports a sharp increase in the number of people who believe that climate change is happening and will be a problem for the United States.  The biggest change was among the significant group of people who say they don’t trust scientists. Here’s the summary from AP:

  • 4 out of every 5 Americans said climate change will be a serious problem for the United States if nothing is done about it.
  • 57% of Americans say the U.S. government should do a great deal or quite a bit about the problem.
  • Overall, 78% said they believe temperatures are rising.

These survey results have received a lot of attention.  Virtually every story that I read about the survey used the same language I used earlier: the biggest change in opinion was among the 30% who “don’t trust science.”  But this language is misleading.   The question was more focused.  Respondents were asked: “How much do you trust the things that scientists say about the environment – completely, a lot, a moderate amount, a little, or not at all?”  The population split about evenly between “a lot,” “a moderate amount” and “a little or not at all.”

This low level of trust in “the things that scientists say about the environment” contrasts sharply with the general public attitude toward science.  As Pew reported in 2009,

Americans like science. Overwhelming majorities say that science has had a positive effect on society and that science has made life easier for most people. Most also say that government investments in science, as well as engineering and technology, pay off in the long run.

And scientists are very highly rated compared with members of other professions: Only members of the military and teachers are more likely to be viewed as contributing a lot to society’s well-being.

There may also be a political effect.  A widely reported article in the American Sociological Review earlier this year reported a sharp decline in trust in science by conservatives.  But this study reported that conservative trust did not necessarily extend to science generally:

[W]hen examining a series of public attitudes toward science, conservatives’ unfavorable attitudes are most acute in relation to government funding of science and the use of scientific knowledge to influence social policy Conservatives thus appear especially averse to regulatory science, defined here as the mutual dependence of organized science and government policy.

Unfortunately, the recent AP poll on climate change doesn’t provide cross-tabs.  It would be interesting to know who belonged to the “don’t trust environmental science” group in terms of political affiliation and ideology.  Conservatives are probably over-represented in that group (as shown by the ASR paper), but I’d guess they aren’t the ones whose opinions of climate change have shifted.  More likely, those are moderates, perhaps with conservative leanings.  Assuming they maintain their views about climate change, I wonder whether their views about environmental science will shift since they now agree with scientists’ views on the most salient environmental issue.

Obviously, it’s a mistake to oversimplify public attitudes toward science.  We really need better information about how the public envisions the scientific process and its relationship with government policy.  Without a clearer understanding of these attitudes, it’s hard to interpret the AP survey’s report.

It does appear that there are a significant number of Americans who draw their views about climate from recent weather events rather than from climate science.  Relying on the evidence of their own senses may feel common sensical to them, but it’s really backwards. Given the random element in individual weather events, we really need a lot of data and statistical studies to reach confident conclusions.  Although it’s nice that they’re starting to reach the right conclusions, it would probably take only another random event —  like a really cold winter or two — to push them in the other direction.

Obama has stressed the need for renewable energy more than he has discussed climate change as such.  Although the numbers on climate change are improving, this strategy still may make political sense.  A recent report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication reports that “[n]early all Americans (92%) say the president and the Congress should make developing sources of clean energy a ‘very high’ (31%), ‘high’ (38%), or ‘medium’ priority (23%). Very few say it should be a low priority (8%).”  In contrast, 23% think climate change should be a  low priority.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

Comments to “Attitudes on climate change, environmental science and clean energy

  1. Great write up though i feel the issue of climate change should be addressed in a broader perspective….after all America is not the only country having issues…look to the East for sure…

  2. There are now 41,415 species on the IUCN Red List, and 16,306 of them are endangered species threatened with extinction. This is up from 16,118 last year. This includes both endangered animals and endangered plants.

    The species endangered include one in four mammals, one in eight birds, one third of all amphibians and 70% of the world’s assessed plants on the 2007 IUCN Red List are in jeopardy of extinction. The total number of extinct species has reached 785 and a further 65 are only found in captivity or in cultivation. In the last 500 years, human activity has forced over 800 species into extinction. to know more endangered species

  3. Dan:

    I’m a physicist actively involved with environmental matters for some 30 years.

    With all due respect, your article (and the surveys) have one profound flaw in them: they both assume the terms “Science” and “Scientists” are essentially synonymous. That is false.

    The public may well (rightly so) distrust more scientists but that has nothing to do with distrusting Science.

    Science is a proven, very effective Process. What’s to distrust about that?

    The problem is when individual scientists abort, abridge, circumvent, distort, etc the Process.

    When people use the term “bad science” that is a contradiction in terms. What they should be saying is “bad scientists.”

    Bad scientists are those who make unproven connections between things like “renewable energy” and “climate change.” Note that neither of these are scientific terms, but rather marketing phrases.

    Your examples (and Yales’) are in the realm of political science, not traditional real science.

    • Right on, Dan!!

      It’s about time that people stopped this confusion. I’m a chemist actively involved in science education these days. My company makes online hands-on science labs with the express purpose of showing people what science is really all about.

      As you say, it’s a process. It’s not a collection of arcane language, formulas, and procedures. Those are tools. You might as well say that carpentry is hammers. Also, it’s the carpenters who are bad, not carpentry. Is that so hard for so many to understand?

  4. The main reason the American public doesn’t have higher opinions of science is because they don’t understand the way scientists report their findings. The media likes to report strongly worded, definitive conclusions (i.e. “Earth will be 4° warmer by the 22nd century. Thus saith the Lord…”) where as scientists almost always qualify their answers based upon varied outcomes (i.e. “The chances that the Earth will be 4° warmer by the 22nd century is 78% whereas there’s a 12% chance that it will only be 2° warmer and a 10% chance it will only be 1° warmer…”).

    The reason for this has nothing to do with a supposed deemphasis on science in public education but more with how the media reports scientific studies and conclusions.

  5. Nicely done piece that ties together a slew of recent public opinion polling and parsing on climate change and political orientation. Your observation about the trap of shifting climate attitudes being tied to the vagaries of weather is right on the mark.

    That said, however, climate action advocates’ public narratives should not shun current events such as Texas and mid-west heat and droughts and Superstorm Sandy and their aftermaths on daily life. They’re big, they’re vivid and they provide a taste of what’s to come if we don’t accomplish the collective action we need.

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