Public perception on climate change

Tags: Op-ed
Public perception on climate change
FACT FILE: Although there is evidence that carbon-dioxide levels are increasing and that consequently these levels will cause an increase in atmospheric temperatures causing global warming, public perception is far from these facts
Climate change is already happening; however, surveys conducted in 2008 and 2009 found significant declines in people’s climate change beliefs, risk perceptions, and trust in scientists. According to Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University, there could be several potential explanations for this decline. Some of these factors include the poor state of the economy, diminishing media attention, and Climategate.

According to Leiserowitz, in 2008, 71 per cent of Americans said “yes,” global warming is happening. By 2010, however, this number had dropped significantly to 57 per cent. Meanwhile, the proportion that said “no,” global warming is not happening doubled from 10 to 20 per cent, while those who said “don’t know” increased to 23 per cent of the public. Those respondents who said “yes” were then asked how sure they were that global warming is happening. By 2010, only 59 per cent said they were “very” or “extremely sure” global warming is happening -- a 13-point drop from 2008. Furthermore, respondents who said “no” global warming is not happening did not become significantly more certain of their views. These results point to the decline trend on public perception about climate change.

The economy and the unemployment rate appear to be the first explanation of this declining trend. For example, in October of 2008, unemployment in the US stood at 6.6 per cent. By December of 2010, it had risen substantially to 10.0 per cent. According to Leiserowitz, several surveys have found that economy has been the overwhelming number one priority of people (especially in the western world) since at least the fall of 2008. As shown by the Pew Centre, by January 2010, only 28 per cent of public said addressing global warming should be a top priority, down 10 points from 2007.

The lack of media attention given to the climate change problem appears to also contribute to the declining public perception. Most people only learn about the climate change issue through media reporting and when the quantity and quality of media coverage changes, it likely influences public opinion. According to Leiserowitz, in North America, newspaper coverage of global warming peaked in 2007 and steadily declined through 2008 and 2009, dropping to roughly 33 per cent of the peak before a sudden spike of news stories before and during COP15 in Copenhagen, followed by a subsequent drop back to the relatively low levels of 2009. These patterns in the sheer quantity of media reporting strongly suggest that the media have not kept climate change readily present and available in the minds of much of the public.

The impact of Climategate, an international scandal resulting from the unauthorised release of emails between climate scientists in England and the US, appears to be strong. As it is known, on November 19, 2009, more than 1,000 confidential e-mails from the climatic research unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia were posted to the internet. A few of these emails were subsequently cited by climate change critics as evidence that British and American scientists had changed their results to make global warming appear worse than it is, suppressed global warming research they disagreed with, and conspired to delete communications relevant to freedom of information requests.

The Climategate scandal generated considerable press attention across the US and around the world, with articles and editorials published in major newspapers and scientific journals, and stories broadcast on major television and radio networks. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, faced allegations that these scientists had pressured the IPCC to suppress certain articles as part of the fourth assessment report, a claim the IPCC denied.

Leiserowitz has investigated the impact of Climategate on public opinion. The researcher conducted a survey nearly two months after the emails were first posted online and approximately one month after the story finally entered mainstream news publications and broadcasts. The survey found that 29 per cent of those surveyed said they had heard of the Climategate story. Those respondents who had at least followed the story a little were then asked whether the news stories had made them more or less certain that global warming is happening or not. Forty-seven per cent said the stories had made them somewhat (18 per cent) or much more certain (29 per cent) that global warming is not happening. Finally, Leiserowitz asked respondents about the conclusions they had reached about the scandal itself and its wider meaning for the issue of global warming. Of those people paying attention to the story, 69 per cent said that they somewhat (36 per cent) or strongly agreed (33 per cent) with the statement: “Scientists changed their results to make global warming appear worse than it is.” Likewise, 66 per cent somewhat (33 epr cent) or strongly agreed (33 per cent) that: “Scientists conspired to suppress global warming research they disagreed with.”

What’s the bottomline? Although there is unequivocal evidence that carbon-dioxide levels are increasing in the atmosphere, and consequently, these levels will cause an increase in atmospheric temperatures causing global warming, public perception is far from these facts. At present, there is a declining perception about global warming and one could hope that this problem will correct itself as impacts of climate change are begun to be felt on a regular basis.

(The writer is on the faculty of Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi)


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