Public Opinion on Global Warming Is Easier to Change Than Science

This article is from the archive of our partner .

If you're curious what a motivated political campaign to undermine established science looks like, allow Gallup and its new poll of climate change attitudes to demonstrate. There is no serious objection among scientists that the climate is changing. There are disputes about the manifestations of that change, about how rapidly it will happen, and about how to curtail it — but there's no doubt it's a problem.

Last December, James Lawrence Powell, a member of the National Science Board which advises Washington on scientific matters, compiled all of the peer-reviewed studies on climate change between 1991 and 2012. This is how the articles supporting the existence of climate change compare to those rejecting it.

And here is what Gallup found when it asked Americans whether or not they believed there was scientific consensus on the issue.

Or, to put it more starkly, here's the difference between what the research indicates and Americans' perception of that research.

This is not an accident. Opponents of action on climate change — largely companies reliant on fossil fuel consumption to keep costs low or for their profit bases — have deliberately worked to introduce the idea that there is a scientific controversy about climate change. (See, for example, the Union of Concerned Scientists' report on ExxonMobil's efforts to that end.) That idea has taken hold.

Recommended Reading

Gallup writes about the poll released today:

U.S. worry about global warming is heading back up after several years of expanded public skepticism. Views on the subject are now near the midpoint in Gallup trends, exemplified by the 58 percent of Americans who say they worry a great deal or fair amount about global warming. This is up from 51 percent in 2011 but still below the 62 percent to 72 percent levels seen in earlier years.

This messy chart shows how those attitudes have changed over the years.

This cleaner chart offers slightly different packaging of that info: Those with "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of concern constitute the blue line, those with "a little" or no concern, the red.

Those "several years of expanded skepticism" can be seen from early 2008 to 2010 — a period in which politics shifted hard to the right. Opposition to climate change was an integral-if-not-prominent part of that shift, of course, as the Washington Post documented in 2011. That article makes an additional point: strong belief, even when held by a small minority, can dominate political focus in a way that dispassionate belief among a large minority can't.

The majority that worries a great deal about climate change is not strongly passionate. Gallup asked about a series of environmental concerns — water quality, air pollution — and climate change emerged near the bottom in order of level of concern.

For a long time, advocates of climate action have hoped that at least once the effects of climate change become obvious, people would have no choice but to demand action. That hasn't been borne out. Last year saw the worst drought since the Dust Bowl era, the hottest year in continental U.S. History, record ice melt in the Arctic, and a massive hurricane that flooded New York in large part thanks to a climate-changed-raised ocean — none of which was enough to convince many Americans. Stripping out the middle responses, here is the number of Americans who think the effects of climate change have already begun, versus those who think they never will.

After the events of 2012, the percent of Americans who think we're already seeing the effects of climate change went up two percent.

Scientists can't convince Americans. Unprecedented weather phenomena can't either. Doubt is a tricky political opponent — particularly when it's well-funded.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.