Mark Twain famously said that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. He could just as easily have included polls. Advocates across the political spectrum habitually cite polls to "prove" that the public holds a certain view of a given issue, even when the truth is more complicated or even contradictory. This appears to be happening with the climate issue. As the Obama administration and Congressional leaders prepare to introduce new climate legislation, mainstream media have given fresh prominence to deniers’ claims of fraud and rampant error on the part of climate scientists. Meanwhile, surveys by Gallup and other leading pollsters are being spun as evidence that the deniers are gaining ground among the public, which is supposedly divided over whether to take action against rising temperatures and the droughts, storms and sea-level rise they trigger. A closer look, however, suggests that public opinion has changed very little. What has changed is the message coming from the media, key parts of which have reverted to their longstanding posture of scientific illiteracy and de facto complicity with the deniers’ disinformation campaign.
This abuse of polling data has a long pedigree. As a young reporter in the 1980s researching the book On Bended Knee, I watched the Reagan White House use polls to make fools of the mainstream media and the Democratic Party. Reagan’s advisers were forever citing polls supposedly demonstrating that the Gipper was wildly popular and thus that anyone who criticized him was taking a political risk. The truth was rather less flattering. Yes, Reagan was personally popular–most Americans thought he was a nice guy–but that had been true of almost all presidents. Ask Americans about Reagan’s policies, however, and many were indeed unhappy with his trickle-down economics and bellicose foreign policy. Nevertheless, most news organizations and Congressional Democrats swallowed the White House spin and pulled their punches. As a result, Reagan escaped sharp and sustained criticism from the opposition party and the press for most of his presidency.
Today, a similar gullibility and misreading of polls is playing into the hands of climate change deniers. The campaign to deny the science behind man-made climate change, which seemed to be losing steam a year ago, has resurged in recent months, thanks to high-profile media coverage of stolen e-mails from a British climate unit and of trivial errors in the Fourth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page are no longer the only major outlets trumpeting such charges. The New York Times, whose veteran climate reporter, Andrew Revkin, retired in December, has subsequently run two front-page stories suggesting that the science behind climate change may not be settled after all. The Times‘s February 9 article "U.N. Climate Panel and Its Chief Face a Siege on Their Credibility" quoted not a single mainstream climate scientist in support of its headline, noted Joseph Romm of the Center for American Progress, whose new book, Straight Up, blasts the media and deniers alike for misrepresenting climate science. Robert Brulle, a communications expert at Drexel University, accused the Times of becoming "an echo-chamber for the climate disinformation movement." The deniers’ agenda has been further advanced by unquestioning coverage of polls by Gallup, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and other survey groups that claim to demonstrate growing public skepticism about climate change. Gallup’s poll, released on March 11 and publicized internationally by Reuters, said that 48 percent of Americans now regard fears of climate change as "generally exaggerated."
All this has led environmentalists and climate deniers to assume that getting strong climate legislation through Congress will be even harder this year than last, when the weak Waxman-Markey bill barely passed the House before languishing in the Senate. Dig deeper, though, and this assumption crumbles like day-old coffee cake.
Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor who has been surveying Americans’ views on climate change since 1995, says that, in fact, Americans remain overwhelmingly convinced that man-made climate change is happening and must be confronted. "The media is sensationalizing these polls to make it sound like the public is backing off its belief in climate change, but it’s not so," argues Krosnick, who delivered a paper on the subject at an American Meteorological Association briefing in Washington a day after the Gallup poll was released. Krosnick says that Americans’ views have remained quite stable over the past ten years and that in November 2009–the very time the media were full of stories about the stolen British e-mails–a whopping 75 percent of Americans said they believed that global temperatures are going up.
Krosnick, whose academic specialty is the wording of survey questions, suspects his colleagues at Gallup and elsewhere have gotten misleading results because of the way they worded their questions: their phrasing ended up testing whether Americans believed in the science of climate change rather than the phenomenon of climate change. "Most people’s opinions are based not on science but on what they experience in their daily lives," Krosnick told me. "So our surveys ask people if they have heard about the idea that temperatures have been going up over the past 100 years and if they agree with this idea." The 75 percent of Americans who answered yes to that question amounts to "a huge number," says Krosnick–a far higher level of agreement than pertains on most political issues. Where climate change deniers have had an effect, he adds, is in reducing, to 31 percent, the number of Americans who think all scientists agree about climate change. "But most Americans have thought that [scientists don’t all agree on climate change] for the entire fifteen years I’ve been polling on this issue," adds Krosnick–further tribute, it seems, to the media’s longstanding habit of giving a handful of deniers prominence equal to the vast majority of scientists who affirm climate change.
Even if Krosnick is right that ordinary Americans’ opinions have not changed much, it would be a mistake to conclude that the recent polls and media coverage have had no political effect. As the Reagan example illustrates, the public can hold one opinion–that Reagan’s policies were unwelcome–but that opinion may have little practical effect if the governing elite in Washington believes something different. "It’s not just a question of the media mischaracterizing the public’s views about climate change," says Krosnick. "It is also that, because of this perception, legislators may turn against voting for climate bills they believe would be good for the country."
An assumption of lackluster public support for strong climate action may explain recent Obama administration retreats on the forthcoming climate bill. In an apparent effort to entice a few Rust Belt Democrats and less doctrinaire Republicans to back the Senate bill being co-sponsored by Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, Connecticut independent Joseph Lieberman and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, the White House has endorsed an Energy Department request for an estimated $36 billion in new loan guarantees for nuclear power plants as well as a resumption of offshore oil drilling along the Atlantic and Alaskan coasts. More nuclear plants would do little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while resumed drilling would actually increase them, but the administration evidently believes that such is the price of attracting the sixty Senate votes needed to overcome the predictable Republican filibuster.
"I’ve worked on energy issues in Washington for seventeen years, and I’ve never seen such strong opposition from the polluters as we face now," says Anna Aurillio, director of Environment America’s Washington office. "They’re putting unprecedented amounts of money and effort into this fight because they know that if we get a bill through Congress, this president will sign it." At press time, the specifics of the Senate bill had not yet been released, but the battle to make the bill match rather than dodge the science of climate change will clearly be titanic. It will not be won if the deniers’ narrative–that climate science is dubious and Americans don’t really want action–is allowed to stand. Now is the time for journalists to get the story right and for ordinary citizens to speak out, loudly, to stiffen lawmakers’ spines. Says Aurillio, "We need sixty senators to be convinced by the public, not the polluters, to do what’s necessary to solve this problem."