19 March 2010

Capitol Hill briefing on perceptions of climate change

Posted by Michael McFadden

Understanding climate change and addressing its effects are huge tasks. Successfully adapting to climate change necessitates a precise understanding of the science, the general public’s attitudes towards the science and possible adaptation policies, and a lucid assessment of current political realities. With the American Meteorological Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Statistical Association, and the National Science Foundation, AGU cosponsored a briefing on Capitol Hill on Friday, 12 March that presented nonpartisan appraisals of these three perspectives.

Michael Oppenheimer (Credit: Princeton University)

Michael Oppenheimer (Credit: Princeton University)

First to speak was Princeton University’s Michael Oppenheimer. Professor Oppenheimer outlined the basics of the science of climate change, indicating the undeniable facts and placing the uncertainties within the context of incontrovertible understanding. Oppenheimer spent time explaining his presentation’s most striking graph, which was taken from a January 2009 article by NOAA scientist Susan Solomon and colleagues in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The graph shows how long carbon dioxide (CO2) will remain in the atmosphere and the corresponding temperature increases if all emissions of CO2 were shut off instantaneously. Even if emissions were shut off now, we’re in for a millennium of warming. Warming is occurring and will continue – that’s unpreventable. The choice before us is to act to prevent a large alteration to the climate system.

Oppenheimer gave an example of the 2003 heat wave in Europe that is estimated to have killed 35,000 people. Oppenheimer soberly stated that such a disastrous heat wave could easily become a normal summer according to many scenarios that climate scientists have modeled. Governments and local authorities can increase the use of air conditioners as a way (not a sustainable one) to cope with such heat waves; however, areas of drought are already increasing and, at low latitudes, the amount of water for agriculture and drinking will decrease.

When looking at temperature graphs, Oppenheimer stressed that we should pay attention to trends over decades rather than taking mild years, such as 2008, as evidence that warming has abated.

You can view Professor Oppenheimer’s PowerPoint slides here.

Jon Krosnick (Credit: Stanford University)

Jon Krosnick (Credit: Stanford University)

Jon Krosnick, professor of communication, political science, and psychology at Stanford University, turned to the general public’s perception of climate change. Dr. Krosnick has been surveying Americans on this subject since 1993 and has amassed some results that may surprise you.

Seventy-five percent of people who took his 2009 survey agreed that the world’s temperatures have probably been going up slowly in the past 100 years. Compared with the same question in his 2008 survey, there has been a five percent decline; however, that five-percent decline is entirely within the group of people who don’t trust scientists. That three-quarters do think global climate change is happening should gladden the spirits of anyone feeling despondent or besieged on this subject! Krosnick was still curious why the drop occurred and came up with the following five plausible explanations and then tested them against his survey results:

* Trust in scientists has declined.
* The economic downtown has driven down willingness to pay for remediating the situation (in other words, a post-hoc rationalization of a belief that global warming isn’t happening).
* The talking-points of Republican Party members and their surrogates have gained traction with the general public.
* Skeptical scientists have gained traction.
* The temperatures of 2008 broke the warming trend and influenced people’s perceptions of climate.

Scrutinizing his 2009 survey results, Krosnick found the following:

* Trust in scientists increased in comparison with 2008 by 2% with seventy percent of people trusting scientists a lot or a moderate amount.
* The majority of those who took the survey approved of economic policies to address climate change.
* There’s no appreciable difference in survey respondents who vote Republican in comparison with Democrats, so the Republican talking points are not getting noticed.
* Skeptical scientists aren’t converting anyone other than those who already have a low trust in scientists, and would already take a minority opinion on climate change science.

Since climate stability can also play a role in people’s perception of global warming, Krosnick suggests that the pause in the warming trend is the cause of the five-percent decline. As Krosnick states in the press release of his survey data, “Katrina is a distant memory. 2008 wasn’t a year of giant-sized storms, but it was a year of lower temperatures since 1997. 2009 also saw the fewest storms since 1997. For some people – especially those who say that they have little or no trust in climate scientists – that’s real information. They see that the weather appears to be more stable and that temperatures are cooler, and their reaction is, ‘it stopped getting hotter, so maybe global warming isn’t happening after all.’”

If Krosnick is correct that 2008’s pause in the warming trend caused the five-percent decline in the number of people who think global warming is occurring, and if climate scientists are accurate in their predictions that the warming trend will continue, Krosnick’s surveys will show a reverse of that decline. As Krosnick put it, people will stick their finger out the window again and find it’s warmer again and they’ll change their mind.

The two-percent increase in the number of people who trust scientists moderately or a lot should comfort the scientific community, especially since Krosnick conducted the survey at the height of the media frenzy over email leaked from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (dubbed ‘Climategate’).

Krosnick states, “Our research shows that the negative publicity surrounding Climategate had no meaningful impact on public confidence in climate scientists.” He thinks that the two months since his survey of continued media attention has not affected the public’s trust in scientists: “It’s possible that public regard for climate scientists has dropped sharply since our 2009 survey. But based on my thirty years of experience in this field, that’s very unlikely because American public opinion—even on a highly publicized and frequently debated issue—changes very, very slowly. So in a two-month period, it’s unlikely that there would be a dramatic change. My guess is that relatively few Americans are aware of the media controversy or are paying attention to it, and even fewer are influenced by it.”

You can read more about Dr. Krosnick’s survey on the Woods Institute for the Environment website.

Norman Ornstein (Credit: American Enterprise Insitute)

Norman Ornstein (Credit: American Enterprise Insitute)

So what of the politicians’ perceptions of climate change? Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute was frank about the political situation on Capitol Hill.

Talking without PowerPoint slides (impressive) and seemingly without notes, he stated that in over thirty years of his experience he hasn’t seen a more dysfunctional political system. Ornstein related the well-understood historical fact that during economic downturns, nativism and populism flare up and political elites search for scapegoats in order to distract the populace from their anger at politicians.

By way of hopeful encouragement, Ornstein noted that in 1995 when Newt Gringrich’s wave of Republicans took control of the House after forty years of Democratic Party majorities, they tried to overturn environmental legislation. Those efforts were thwarted by businesses who, as Ornstein said, had learned to “do well and do good” simultaneously.

Ornstein bucked up the audience by saying that it was astonishing that the House of Representatives had passed climate legislation, given the prevailing systemic dysfunction on Capitol Hill. Yet he cautioned that the success of climate legislation wholly hinges on whether health care reform passes. If that legislation fails, then few members of Congress will risk their seats for any other of President Obama’s initiatives.

The time allotted for this briefing ended before the three speakers could discuss how to bring their three perspectives together. Despite the public’s support for climate scientists and its support for remedial action, the reality is we are waiting for elected officials to catch up to where majority opinions and perceptions are.

For another take on this briefing, visit Mountain Beltway, Callan Bentley’s blog.

– Paul Cooper, AGU’s Education coordinator