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Public Warms to Climate Change

By Andrew Freedman

The American media has established a narrative that climate science is becoming more controversial, and public confidence in that science is waning. But does this narrative accurately reflect public opinion? Two new polls suggest the answer is no.

Multiple surveys have been released during the past year showing declining public agreement with the mainstream scientific view that human activities are warming the climate. For an example of this narrative, look no further than this May 25 New York Times story.

The storyline has become so entrenched that it is influencing lawmakers in Washington, potentially scuttling climate legislation. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who worked for months to craft comprehensive climate change and energy legislation before walking away from the effort earlier this spring, told Mother Jones magazine on June 8 that the public has cooled on climate science, and that the science is now more disputed than it was a short time ago.

“The public acceptance about global warming has changed," Graham said.  

“The science about global warming has changed," he stated. "I think they've oversold this stuff, quite frankly. I think they've been alarmist and the science is in question."

Graham added: "The whole movement has taken a giant step backward."

Unfortunately for Graham, the most recent polling, from groups that specialize in gauging public opinion of climate change, indicate that he is out of step with the American public. The polls, one from Stanford and another from Yale and George Mason Universities, show the slide in public support for manmade climate change, as well as policies to address it, has halted.

According to both new polls, a majority of Americans remain convinced that climate change is occurring, and is caused at least in part by human activities. Furthermore, a large majority supports policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including regulating carbon dioxide — the primary greenhouse gas — as a pollutant.

The Yale/George Mason poll shows a slight uptick (four points) since January of this year in the percentage of Americans who think the Earth is warming (61 percent), as well as a slight increase (three points) in the percentage who think the warming is mostly because of human activities (53 percent). The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus three points.

The Stanford survey shows even greater public confidence in the conclusions of most climate scientists, who say that human activities are in fact warming the planet. When asked whether the world’s temperature “may have been going up slowly over the past 100 years,” 74 percent of respondents said this “probably has been happening.” Regarding government regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, 76 percent of respondents said government should limit emissions from US businesses.

The poll results were trumpeted in a New York Times Op-Ed on Wednesday by Stanford researcher and Climate Central board member Jon Krosnick, who wrote, “Huge majorities of Americans still believe the earth has been gradually warming as the result of human activity and want the government to institute regulations to stop it.”

Significantly, the Stanford survey indicates that a scandal known as “climategate,” which involved stolen email messages from prominent climate scientists, did not make much of an impression on most Americans.

Only nine percent of respondents who had heard of the emails said they indicated “that scientists who study the world’s climate should not be trusted.” Also, 71 percent of respondents said they “trust the things that scientists say about the environment” a moderate amount, a lot, or completely. This is about the same amount as seen in Stanford surveys dating back to 2006.

“We found no decline in Americans’ trust in environmental scientists,” Krosnick wrote.

However, the Stanford poll did find a “small recent decline in the proportion of people who believe global warming has been happening, from 84 percent in 2007 to 80 percent in 2008 to 74 percent today.”

Nevertheless, Graham and others who are counting on declining public support of climate science to justify their policy positions should be wary. As Krosnick wrote in the Times: “…The small recent decline in the proportion of people who believe in global warming is likely to be temporary. If the earth’s temperature begins to rise again, these individuals may reverse course and rejoin the large majority who still think warming is real."