Skeptics noise broad; no deep effects on American opinions

July 2, 2010

A commenter with the handle Klem complained about my outlook on global warming issues, in a recent post about the desperation I see in the warming denialist world.  Klem finds my views not pessimistic enough:

Those purloined emails have ultimately destroyed the IPCC, it has no credibility with the public anymore. You seem like a smart guy but I can’t believe after this amount of time you still don’t understand this. And you say it’s the anti-warming camp which is desperate? Oops I think you’re in denial.

I’ve been involved in environmental issues since well before the first Earth Day.  Lack of understanding among the public at large is a constant issue, and not a recent development.  Lack of support for a clean environment rarely is an issue, however.  The old progressive era push for clean water, clean air, outdoor activities, and healthy living, continues probably stronger today than ever before.  No one defends smoking stacks as symbols of progress anymore.

Even petroleum companies spend millions in advertising to tout their “green” tendencies.  Big Oil doesn’t spend money like that if they don’t have clear indicators that it’s effective.

One indication of how deep is the desire for environmental protection is the mini-movement chronicled and maybe led by conservative writer Rod Dreher, known as “crunchy conservatism.” Dreher wrote about conservatives who, from most outward appearances — Birkenstock sandals, organic-food heavy diets, environmentally-friendly yards and homes — might be considered lefty environmentalists, but who adhere to conservative social and economic policies, and the Republican party (yes:  educated people who vote against their own best interests; go figure).

No matter how odd their views on economics, no matter how odd their views on their fellow humans, they recognize the basic benefits of the progressive movement on their own lives, and they would like to conserve those benefits.

Have the so-called skeptics changed those trends?  Did the stealing of e-mails convince most Americans that scientists are evil, conniving, and wrong?

Rather than take the denialists’ methods, the famous MSU technique*, how about we actually ask people what they think?

Recent polls with some depth on environmental issues show most Americans to be quite  level-headed about warming and other environment issues, and not so subject to the hot winds of talk-without-fact from Fox News, the Heartland Institute, or other paragons of science denialism.

Most Americans remain concerned about global warming

Pay attention to reality for a moment; the headline on the press release is, “Large majority of Americans still believe in global warming, Stanford poll finds”:

Three out of four Americans believe that the Earth has been gradually warming as the result of human activity and want the government to institute regulations to stop it, according to a new survey by researchers at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.

The survey was conducted by Woods Institute Senior Fellow Jon Krosnick, a professor of communication and of political science at Stanford, with funding from the National Science Foundation. The results are based on telephone interviews conducted from June 1-7 with 1,000 randomly selected American adults.

“Several national surveys released during the last eight months have been interpreted as showing that fewer and fewer Americans believe that climate change is real, human-caused and threatening to people,” Krosnick said. “But our new survey shows just the opposite.”

For example, when respondents in the June 2010 survey were asked if the Earth’s temperature probably had been heating up over the last 100 years, 74 percent said yes. And 75 percent said that human behavior was substantially responsible for any warming that has occurred. Krosnick has asked similar questions in previous Woods Institute polls since 2006.

“Our surveys reveal a small decline in the proportion of people who believe global warming has been happening, from 84 percent in 2007 to 74 percent today,” Krosnick said. “Statistical analysis of our data revealed that this decline is attributable to perceptions of recent weather changes by the minority of Americans who have been skeptical about climate scientists.”

In terms of average Earth temperature, 2008 was the coldest year since 2000, Krosnick said. “Scientists say that such year-to-year fluctuations are uninformative, and people who trust scientists therefore ignore this information when forming opinions about global warming’s existence,” he added. “But people who do not trust climate scientists base their conclusions on their personal observations of nature. These ‘low-trust’ individuals were especially aware of the recent decline in average world temperatures; they were the ones in our survey whose doubts about global warming have increased since 2007.”

According to Krosnick, this explanation is especially significant, because it suggests that the recent decline in the proportion of people who believe in global warming is likely to be temporary. “If the Earth’s temperature begins to rise again, these individuals may reverse course and rejoin the large majority who still think warming is real,” he said.

Ah, the Fickle Public — it appears only a small fraction of the public is fickle, after all.  Shifts in public opinion on the reality of warming were driven by weather, not weather men.

The poll also specifically addressed the effect of the computer break-in that exposed a few thousand e-mail messages from climate scientists under attack by anti-green critics:

‘Climategate’

“Overall, we found no decline in Americans’ trust in environmental scientists,” Krosnick said. “Fully 71 percent of respondents said they trust scientists a moderate amount, a lot or completely.”

Several questions in the June survey addressed the so-called “climategate” controversy, which made headlines in late 2009 and early 2010.

“Growing public skepticism has, in recent months, been attributed to news reports about e-mail messages hacked from the computer system at the University of East Anglia in Britain – characterized as showing climate scientists colluding to silence unconvinced colleagues – and by the discoveries of alleged flaws in reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC),” Krosnick said. “Our survey discredited this claim in multiple ways. ”

For example, only 9 percent of respondents said they knew about the East Anglia e-mail messages and believed they indicate that climate scientists should not be trusted, and only 13 percent said the same about the controversial IPPC reports.

That may explain why Anthony Watts’ logo for his Australian tour shows a kangaroo whose rear end has just been kicked (you can tell by the stars).

Climate skeptics butt-kicked in Australia logo

In cartoons, stars show where a character has been punched or kicked, right?

No agreement to control greenhouse gases came out of the Copenhagen conference last fall.  So-called climate skeptics patted each other on the back, claimed victory, and proceeded to send Christopher Monckton on his Bonnie Lies All Around the World Tour.  In cool light of morning, however, the facts can’t be silenced:  Warming continues, science shows the extremely high probability that humans cause it, official investigations show that climate scientists who had their e-mails stolen were victims of crime, not perpetrators, and climate skeptics failed to stop warming with their big-dollar, nice-banquet meetings with the Heartland Institute, or anywhere else.

If they are skeptics, they are pretty bad at it, falling like chumps for a story that fourth-grade science project made the case they have failed to make everywhere else, and for the story that one of their comrades was sent a bomb in the mail (it turned out to be a misdirected fuel filter).

No wonder Americans remain concerned about warming.

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* Make S[tuff] Up

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