Monday, September 7, 2009

The Recession Changes Minds on Global Warming

In the past decade the science behind global warming has gone from solid to all but certain. Human activity has been shown to better than 90% confidence to be the leading cause of global climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is essentially a who's who list of atmospheric scientists, climatologists, and economists that specialize in climate related issues. They are experts and they know their stuff.

In April 2008, back when housing prices were a concern and the economy was just starting to slow down, 47% of Americans believed the IPCC while only 34% didn't. But then the recession hit and things changed, at least in the minds of the average American as measured by Rasmussen polls.
Each poll in this series has an error of +/- 3%, but it appears clear that over the last 18 months or so there has been a clear trend towards blaming "planetary trends" for global warming instead of human activity. The science on global warming hasn't changed in the past year, but it appears that economic worries trump science in the public mind when they think about global climate change.


  1. Nick, that's interesting. I can think of two possible cause. (Though there might be more)

    1. A lot of people were "touched" by Al Gore's movie a couple years ago. He then goes on to win Academy awards, Nobel Prize, and is a possible presidential candidate giving his cause a lot of attention. Now it has been a few years and since his cause doesn't get as much press people have "forgotten".

    2. Maybe economic strains on people have effected people's perceptions on the subject. Hearing things like "coal is good for the economy" may sway some people.

    This is a very interesting graph however. I will be interested if this trend continues.

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  3. I seriously doubt that human activity is responsible for this trend ;-)

  4. Over the same time as many of the data points, Obama won the presidency and Democrats won both houses of Congress. I wonder if this represents political polarization instead.

  5. Joe and Jared*,

    You make good points - there have been other important events since April 2008. I think, however, that economics has to be one of the major factors. If economics does make a difference, I find it interesting that people would change their opinions of something where the data hasn't changed based on the perception that it may cost them more.

  6. "I seriously doubt that human activity is responsible for this trend ;-)"

    Oh very good, subtle, requiring human activity to understand. I like it!

    When it comes to complicated issues there really is nowhere for us laymen to turn but to the scientific consensus. With all the glen becks and ben steins out there, it's difficult to even know what the real consensus is. Our culture has made our understanding of scientific issues more emotional than rational.

  7. Stan,

    I think some of that is the fault of the scientific community. We need to do a better job of presenting our results in concise, understandable ways. If the general public better understood what scientists are doing, the outrageous claims made for political purposes would get less attention and there would also be less backlash against funding for science.

  8. Hmmm, interesting this reminds me of something I wrote about recently on my own blog. Part of this trend can be explained by the politicization of the global warming debate by people like Al Gore. When they made it a political issue they did so by talking about all the bad weather that would result from climate change. This may be true but they were confusing weather with climate. Their argument worked in a year like 2005 with Katrina and other storms but now that the weather has been a little quieter and the economy is bad people forget or think that it was all a lie in the first place. You might say that this is largely due to politicians who made it a political issue in the first place because they confused weather with climate.

  9. I also think it is due to politics that the concept of climate change has in some ways hit a brick wall. It doesn't help that in his movie and book, Al Gore used some bad science and wrong "facts." He polarized the issue.

    The discussion went along with concepts of the Kyoto Treaty, which would not have affected global climate change hardly at all over the next century. While radicals like Gore would shut down the American economy, others would like to see how we can fix things without destroying livelihoods and way of life.

    I don't know of many people who are not for cars that run on fuel cells or hydrogen, etc. But it doesn't help us to pretend we can wiggle our noses and instantly have the problems fixed, without impoverishing the nation at the same time - especially when the Kyoto Treaty did not address China or India, who will soon replace America as the world's major polluter. Can we not agree that "clean coal" is not as clean as solar power, but it is cleaner than what so many of our coal producing plants are now doing, and until we do find a recipe for cold fusion, we need to consider any method that will improve environment and economy equally.

    I do think more and more Republicans are on board with climate change. They just don't want to see the radical changes some wish to impose upon us that will economically turn us into a third world nation, while leaving China and India to pollute all they wish.


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