State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

What Really Sways Public Opinion on Climate Change

Being part of the Columbia Climate Center, which endeavors to improve public understanding of climate change as part of its mission, I was dismayed, but not surprised to read a study confirming that dissemination of scientific information on climate change to the public has a minimal effect on public opinion.  A recent analysis shows that various communication techniques have a minor influence and are overshadowed by the effect of the divide on environmental issues among the political elite.

The paper, “Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S., 2002-2010” tries to account for the significant decline in America’s worry about climate change that the authors believe is not wholly explained by the economic downturn.  In 2004, a U.S. Gallup poll showed that 26% of respondents worried “a great deal” about climate change; in 2007 that number rose to 41%; by 2010, it had fallen to 28%.  Using time-series analyses, the paper examines five possible explanations: 1) extreme weather events, 2) public access to accurate scientific information, 3) media coverage, 4) elite cues, and 5) movement/countermovement advocacy.

Their findings indicate that weather events do not influence the aggregate level of public concern.  This factor will likely become more significant with increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events. On an individual level, personal experience plays a large role in risk-perception.  For example, people in the UK who experienced flooding became more concerned about climate change and less uncertain whether climate change was occurring.  The American study found that science-based information also plays a limited role in shaping public concern about the threat of climate change.  Major assessment reports and articles on climate change in popular science magazines do affect public concern, while scientific articles, generally not read by the public, have no discernible effect.

The most important factor in influencing public opinion on climate change is the elite partisan battle over the issue.  The two strongest effects on public concern are Democratic Congressional action statements and Republican roll-call votes, which increase and diminish public concern, respectively.  Without consensus among the elites, the issue does not become mainstreamed.  As Susan McDonald explains, “When elites disagree, polarization occurs, and citizens rely on other indicators, such as political party or source credibility, to make up their minds.”

While media coverage exerts an important influence, this coverage is itself largely a function of elite cues and economic factors.  As environmental issues have become further politically polarized, Gabriel Lenz writes, “individuals use media coverage to gauge the positions of elites and interpret the news based on their party and ideological identifications.”  A recent paper by Fredrick Mayer considering the various stories that are told about climate change, argues that “media matters, and in particular that changes in the pattern of narratives of climate change reaching the public can explain some portion of the changes in public opinion.”

Overall, the time-series analysis explains nearly 80% of the variance in U.S. Public concern over climate change.  Opinion on climate change is, for some part of the public, stable and largely fixed by ideological and social identities; among other population segments, media coverage, elite cues and other real-world events lead to opinion change.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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