Understanding Public Opinion on Climate Change: A Call for Research
Environmental Magazine doi:10.1080/00139157.2011.588555 (2011)
Although there is widespread agreement among scientists regarding the seriousness of anthropogenic global warming, such a consensus has not reached the general public. In fact, the proportion of Americans who accept the realities of climate change has decreased significantly over the last three years even while scientific evidence of the phenomenon has been strengthened.
Scientists often make the assumption that the public uses rational decision making, weighing the positives and negatives of an issue, to form an opinion. The rational choice model is not sufficient to understand public opinion regarding climate change, however, because it would solely attribute the lack of interest in climate change to a lack of knowledge about the phenomenon. For instance, the rational choice model does not explain why, among Republicans, higher levels of educational attainment are not correlated with increased acceptance of global warming.
Instead of the rational choice model, opinions on climate change are increasingly being formed by connecting information about the issue from trustworthy sources to preexisting beliefs and values. As the political environment has become more polarized decisions are being made less on a case by case analysis of costs and benefits. This is supported by the fact that opinions of Democrats and Independents regarding climate change have remained fairly constant while those of self-identified republicans have dropped significantly over the past three years.
This study by Marquart-Pyatt et al. demonstrates that the anemic public interest in climate change cannot solely be attributed to a lack of knowledge about the phenomenon. Instead, it is indicative of a polarized political climate where decisions are made more on political affiliation than rational choice. More research needs to be conducted in order to to understand the mechanism of public opinion.
>Climate Policy 4 (2005) 377-398
People in the UK have different opinions and levels of support towards the issue of off-shore carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) depending on their level of background information, concern about human-caused climate change, recognition of the need for major reductions in CO2 emissions and CCS being seen as just one part of a wider strategy for achieving significant cuts in CO2 emission.
A series of meetings and a face-to-face survey of 212 randomly selected people were conducted by Simon Shackley, Carly McLachlan and Clair Gough from University of Manchester to investigate the public’s perceptions of CCS. The results show that people without any background information about CCS tend to have no opinion or somewhat negative perspective about it. In contrast, those who are given some knowledge about CCS tend to express their support to the concept. Furthermore, the public generally favored a portfolio including renewable energy technologies, energy efficiency and change of lifestyle, with CCS being part of it. Last but not least, the authors emphasize that the potential risks of CCS, especially accidents and leakage, should be better addressed and reduced, in order for CCS to be more widely accepted.
Though dozens of surveys on global warming have been completed over the past twenty years, the results have never been compiled into one succinct summary. Matthew Nisbet, assistant professor at American University, gathered results from over seventy surveys in order to create a review of public opinion trends in regards to global warming.
In terms of public awareness and understanding they found that as time progresses and media coverage increases, more people report having heard about global warming, however, even twenty years after global warming has been brought to the attention of the public, few Americans believe that they fully understand the issue. Despite this confusion among the public, most do believe that climate change is prevalent but because of its “creeping nature,” many tend to discount its threats.
In order to stave off global warming most Americans vote to set higher standards for automobile, industry, and CO2 emissions and support spending government money on alternative energy forms.
Nisbet, M. C. and T. Myers. 2007. Twenty years of public opinion about global warming. Public Opinion Quarterly. 71: 444-470.
Public Opinion Quarterly. 71, 444–470 (2007).
Matthew Nisbet and Teresa Myers compiled 20 years of public opinion surveys regarding the issue of climate change providing the first “authoritative summary of their collective findings.” The surveys looked at public awareness and knowledge of global warming, their perceptions of the level of certainty among experts about the issue, their concern about the impacts, their support for policy action in light of economic costs, and support of the Kyoto climate treaty.
This study found that the amount of public awareness regarding the issue highly depends on media coverage, resulting in changing levels of awareness over the years. In addition, global warming usually remains at the lower end of the public’s worries, especially in comparison to water-related pollution. In regards to potential solutions, the general public tended to be more supportive of alternative energy sources and emission limits on industry and automobiles, however less inclined towards the use of nuclear energy and taxes on electricity and gasoline.