Fact Checking The Claim Of A Major Shift In Climate Change Opinion

Earl J. Ritchie, Lecturer, Department of Construction Management

Earl J. Ritchie, Lecturer, Department of Construction Management

Although the media routinely treat climate change as synonymous with anthropogenic climate change, the public is much less convinced that human activity is the cause.

A strong majority of Americans believe climate change is happening.

One frequently sees articles announcing a watershed moment in public concern over climate change. A recent CNN article said “A growing number of Americans, including most Republicans, believe that climate change is happening, a shift in public opinion from three years ago.”

By contrast, a Gallup headline says, “Global Warming Concern Steady Despite Some Partisan Shifts.” Which is true? Is climate change belief increasing? The answer is yes and no. Overall, the change is minor; in some segments it has changed greatly.

Polls show little change in belief in climate change

Belief in climate change is a much-studied subject. It has long been surveyed by Pew, Gallup, Yale/George Mason and others. It is periodically surveyed by various researchers, survey firms and news organizations. Reported change over time varies with the polling organization and specific question. The graph below shows that roughly 80% to 90% of those polled by Gallup believe the Earth has warmed or will warm. This has not changed greatly in the past 20 years.

Believe Global Warming Is Happening or Will Happen | Source: Data from Gallup

The Yale and ABC/Stanford polls show belief about 10% lower but also show little change over time.

It depends on the question

Survey results vary because questions reported similarly in headlines are not actually the same. For example, Gallup asks when it will happen, with an option to say it will never happen; Monmouth asks whether there is a change that is causing extreme weather and sea level rise; Yale asks simply whether it is happening; University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College ask whether there is solid evidence.

The somewhat dated graph below shows that difference among surveys is much greater than the difference over time in any individual survey. This is hardly surprising, given the differences in methodology.

Is Global Warming Happening? | Source: American Geophysical Union

It is not reasonable that the Gallup results of about 55% and the Stanford results of about 80% can both represent the actual level of public belief. The discrepancy is due in part to question wording.

Questions may include “explainers,” nominally to give some understanding of the subject. These explainers are often biased, usually in favor of climate change belief. Not surprisingly, this skews poll results. One study found a 40% increase in overall results and a 100% difference among Republicans as a result of explainers and question structure.

Despite claims of margin of error of 5% or less, differences among surveys show that poll results are not that accurate.

Whether it’s caused by humans is divided

Although the media routinely treat climate change as synonymous with anthropogenic climate change, the public is much less convinced that human activity is the cause. Per recent Pew poll results, approximately half of Americans believe climate change is caused by human activity. However, this belief differs greatly by political orientation. The graph below shows an increasing majority of Democrats believe warming is due to human activity, but the belief by Republicans is low and little changed.

Republicans and Democrats remain apart on the role of human activity in climate change | Source: Pew Research Center

There are differences by age, gender, location and education level. These are small compared to political affiliation and ideology.

More coverage in the liberal media

There has been increasing coverage of climate change in US newspapers. Consistent with the political split on climate change concern, the increase in has been primarily in publications that tend to be rated as liberal or left of center. In tracking of five newspapers by the University of Boulder, the largest increase has been in the New York Times, with significant increases in the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. All three are rated liberal by numerous groups including AllSides and Boston University. Coverage is much less in USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, rated moderate and conservative, respectively. A similar study of US television found mentions are dominated by CNN, also considered a left-leaning source.

2000-2018 United States Newspaper Coverage of Climate Change or Global Warming | Earl J. Ritchie

Hyping minor changes

As in other politicized issues, proponents make a big deal out of any news that favors their viewpoint. The CNN article quoted at the beginning of this article was based on a Monmouth survey. Monmouth’s own announcement was more subdued but touted dramatic increases in climate change belief: an 8% change overall, and a 15% change among Republicans.

If real, those changes are indeed significant. However, the overall belief level was consistent with levels reported for the past several years in other polls and the Republican belief level is considerably higher than reported in other recent polls.

Perhaps the shift in Republican belief reported by Monmouth is real; perhaps it’s a random variation, perhaps it’s the result of the question’s wording. Given the differences between surveys and a degree of year-to-year variation, it’s premature for a single survey result to be taken as proof of a major shift.

How important is climate change to the public?

Climate change does not rank high on the list of public concerns. A 2018 Pew poll listed it 22nd of 23 issues. It ranked similarly low in earlier surveys. However, like all aspects of the debate, it is strongly politically divided. It was tied for fifth place among Democrats/lean Democratic in the 2018 poll.

It was not included in the 2018 Gallup poll of most important problems. In their global warming poll, 91% of Democrats and 33% of Republicans expressed worry.

The facts

There is considerable debate over the exact level of climate change belief; however, some conclusions are clear:

A broader perspective

One can get too concerned about differences of a few percentage points in poll results. A bigger issue is what people are willing to do. Support for renewable energy and elimination of fossil fuel cars is high, but the amount people are willing to pay to accomplish it is low. Poll results vary, but, commonly, 30% to 40% say they are not willing to pay anything. Few seem willing to pay over $200 per year. This compares with an estimated carbon tax cost of $1,000 per year or more needed for US residents to meet a goal of keeping warming below 2 degrees Centigrade.

However, these are very imprecise numbers. I’ll talk about it in a later post.

Earl J. Ritchie is a retired energy executive and teaches a course on the oil and gas industry at the University of Houston. He has 35 years’ experience in the industry. He started as a geophysicist with Mobil Oil and subsequently worked in a variety of management and technical positions with several independent exploration and production companies. He retired as Vice President and General Manager of the offshore division of EOG Resources in 2007. Prior to his experience in the oil industry, he served at the US Air Force Special Weapons Center, providing geologic and geophysical support to nuclear research activities. Ritchie holds a Bachelor of Science in Geology–Geophysics from the University of New Orleans and a Master of Science in Petroleum Engineering and Construction Management from the University of Houston.

Follow me on Twitter. Check out my website.

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