A March 12 event on Capitol Hill brought together a panel of leading experts in political analysis, climate science, and survey research to consider the relationship between what scientists know about climate change, what the public understands, and the legislative process in Congress. Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute argued that the lack of action on climate change in the Senate is much more a product of the intensely polarized political landscape and the difficulty of building coalitions among political elites with party, regional, and energy interest agendas to protect, than a reflection of the will of the public. And a more careful look at some recent survey findings suggests that fears about declining public trust in scientists and concern about climate change have likely been overblown.

Post by Alexa Jay, with Rick Piltz

The event, “Climate Policy: Public Perception, Science, and the Political Landscape,” was hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, and the American Statistical Association.

Recent survey data suggesting a decline in public concern about global warming has set off alarm bells for many in the climate science and climate policy communities, already concerned about what appears to be dwindling political will to tackle comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation in the Senate. 

Some fear that sensationalized media coverage of the hacked Climate Research Unit e-mails and minor errors in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report may have seriously eroded public concern about the threat of global warming and damaged public trust in scientists. 

Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton University, gave an overview of the state of climate science, emphasizing that while the physical basis of anthropogenic warming is very well understood, significant uncertainties remain. 

Oppenheimer said that while the long-term warming trend is incontrovertible, as is its anthropogenic driver, additional research is needed particularly to advance understanding of how the Earth system will respond to given levels of warming under different emissions scenarios, i.e., the impacts and consequences of climate change. 

Jon A. Krosnick, professor of communications, political science, and psychology at Stanford University, commented on what his own research has indicated about public opinion on climate change.  He said that the percentage of Americans who believe in the existence of global warming has declined from 80% in 2008 to 75% in 2009, and posed the question: is this a reason for panic?

Krosnick argued that it should not be, and that the science community has overreacted to the recent survey data.  His research suggests that, among people who already did not trust scientists, belief in the existence of global warming has dropped sharply over the past few years, and this has had a statistically significant impact on overall polling results.  However, overall public trust in scientists has remained constant at around 70%, and does not appear to have been affected by negative publicity and attacks on climate scientists.

Krosnick also said that weather patterns and climate stability can play a role in people’s perception of global warming, especially among those who already do not trust scientists as sources of information on climate change.  Below-average temperatures in parts of the United States over the last two years, and the fact that 2009 saw the fewest storms since 1997, have caused some to conclude that the Earth might actually be getting cooler.  Krosnick argued that the small decline in belief in the existence of global warming will be temporary if warming becomes more noticeable and unstable weather increases.

More information on Krosnick’s work is available here

Norm Ornstein, a Congressional expert and Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, spoke about the prospects for climate and clean energy legislation in the current political climate.  He remarked that, since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the US political system has become increasingly polarized, and the major parties have become both more politically homogeneous and more sharply divided along regional lines. 

In this environment, he considers the passage of HR2454 (the comprehensive climate and clean energy bill) in the House in 2009 to be almost miraculous, and largely a testament to the political skills of Congressmen Henry Waxman and Edward Markey, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s ability to secure seven Republican votes.  Those votes allowed skittish Democrats from coal states to safely vote “No” for fear of angering their support base—one indication of the sway that regional energy politics held over the crafting of the legislation. 

The odds of a similar thing happening in the Senate were never very high, Ornstein said, but this has little to do with public opinion on global warming or any erosion thereof. Instead, the stalling of climate and clean energy legislation in the Senate has much more to do with the difficulty of building the necessary coalitions to pass legislation in a sharply partisan environment.

Ornstein said the persistence of debate and conversation on the issue is largely due to President Obama’s openness to considering initiatives like nuclear power that are more attractive to Republicans, and Senator Lindsey Graham’s openness to standing alone as the single Republican supportive of legislation in the Senate.

He argued that raw public opinion has very little influence on policymaking; what matters the most is how government perceives public opinion, and where the opinion of the “issue public”—active components of the electorate that vote according to a candidate’s stance on a given issue—stands. 

The “Climategate” scandal has given some traction to hard-line climate change deniers, and this has bled into government perception of public opinion to a degree.  There is increasing pressure on Republican lawmakers to question or maintain a soft position on the science behind climate change and to oppose regulatory action on greenhouse gas emissions.

While public belief in the existence of global warming and support for government action has held steady, the concerted efforts of a vocal, well-funded minority have succeeded in softening up the political will to take on comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation in the Senate.

Despite the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists on the detectable human fingerprint in the climate system, Dr. Krosnick’s research found that the percentage of people who think that most scientists are in agreement on the science of global warming has declined from 39 percent in 2008 to 31 percent in 2009.

This area is where climate change skeptics have made the most headway in public opinion, but also presents an opportunity to better educate the public on the overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming.  As Dr. Oppenheimer noted, we currently do not have surveys of scientists in the relevant fields demonstrating the degree of belief in the existence of human-caused global warming for use by the media.  This should be a relatively easy gap to fill, and has the potential to have a high impact at a low cost.   

However, the problem of soft political will in the Senate, encouraged by sensationalized media coverage of climate science ‘scandals’ and the political grandstanding of a few hard-line Congressional denialists, has deep roots.  Attention has turned to the proposed EPA regulation of greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act, and attempts are being made to discredit EPA’s Endangerment Finding on the basis of its use of IPCC reports as supporting evidence. 

These attacks have little to do with the science itself, instead relying on ‘guilt by association’-type smear tactics without any substantive base.  As Ornstein remarked, we have reached a point in the political discourse where, for those with the highest stakes in the game, we no longer have an agreed upon set of facts to depart from. 

The comprehensive IPCC reports, with policymaker summaries approved line-by-line by the US and all other participating governments, have long served as a basis for that commonly-shared understanding of the state of scientific understanding. This helps to explain why global warming deniers place a high priority on seeking to undermine confidence in the IPCC – because this would undermine policymaking based on a shared scientific assessment.

Ornstein said that the best chance for reform may be in continuing to cultivate support in the business community, which has the political clout that public opinion on global warming apparently does not.  He noted that when the GOP under Newt Gingrich attempted to roll back Clinton environmental laws, businesses that had already made investments in accordance with new protections pushed back. 

While some powerful economic interests will work to block climate and clean energy legislation and regulation of greenhouse gases, economic and political elites generally should have a perceived self-interest in not denying scientific evidence about the reality and seriousness of the climate change problem.

Also see:
Good post at Climate Progress with more discussion of Krosnick’s findings.

Earlier CSW post:
February 8, 2010: How does the politicization of climate change affect public opinion?