Despite recent climate swings and climatology research, a new study suggests that politicians have the greatest influence on Americans’ opinion of climate change as a threat.
Co-author of the study, J. Craig Jenkins, an Ohio State sociology professor, studied public opinion from 2002 to 2010 and compared major influences like political agendas, the economy, weather events and media coverage.
“It is the political leaders in Washington who are really driving public opinion about the threat of climate change,” Jenkins told Jeff Grabmeier, director of research communication.
Jenkins wasn’t available to The Lantern for comment.
According to the study, published in the online journal “Climatic Change” on Feb. 2, public opinion on the threat of climate change peaked in 2006 and 2007 when both political parties in Congress showed the highest consensus on the issue. Another key factor in 2006 was the release of the climate change advocacy documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” that Democratic politician Al Gore narrated.
John Adams, a third-year in political science, said public opinion based on bipartisan agreement and the political environment is something America has seen before.
“An example of this phenomenon is what’s called the ‘Rally Round the Flag Effect,'” Adams said. “Which happened after 9/11 when President George W. Bush’s polls went up and reached their peak, because we were experiencing a national crisis, so politicians and people felt a consensus on the issue of threat.”
The study, which compiled data from 74 separate surveys throughout nine years, showed that the state of the economy had the second biggest impact on the perception of threat of climate change. Extreme weather events and research articles published in scientific journals had no affect on the public opinion, while related articles in popular science magazines and advocacy groups had a small, but measurable effect. Amounts of media coverage on the issue weighed in significantly, but this was a product of the media covering what political leaders were saying.
Public opinion declined when politicians became more polarized in their views on climate change. In 2008, Republicans were voting anti-environmental at an increasing rate, peaking in 2010. A small increase of public opinion happened in 2009 simultaneously with the U.S. House of Representatives debate and vote on the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009.
“When our political leaders can’t agree on whether climate change is a threat, the majority of people can’t either,” Jenkins said. “The public is divided because our political leaders are polarized.”
Jenkins said the findings of this study infer a problem with climate science communication.
“The message is that they need to rethink their strategy,” Jenkins said. “Many scientists believe that if we simply educate people about climate change, they will eventually see it as a threat and determine that we need to do something about it.”
Political figures take a stand on almost every end of the spectrum, ranging from Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth,” to Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) ideas. Inhofe claims global warming is a “hoax,” and that there is not data to support people’s overreaction.
Ryan Hottle, a fourth-year doctorate student in environmental science, is studying climate change mitigation in India. Hottle said he agrees with the central message the study evokes.
“There’s got to be a way that the message can be delivered in a more effective manner,” Hottle said. “Part of the blame is on the climate scientists, because it’s easy to publish papers in obscure journals and present at scientific conferences around your peers, but when it comes to presenting to the general public, you can’t present in the jargon that you do at the conferences, and a lot of climate scientists have a difficult time conveying that we are in danger.”