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April 03, 2013

Questions May Skew Polls, But Americans Clearly Accept Reality of Climate Disruption

Forward-on-Climate-rallyPhoto by Javier Sierra

By Grace McRae, Sierra Club Polling & Research Strategist

Here in the United States, we are all witnessing the consequences of a disrupted global climate. In 2012 alone, we suffered through extensive droughts that shattered "Dust Bowl"-era records from the 1930s, a "derecho" ripping through 12 states in a single day, the hottest month ever recorded (July), and raging wildfires in the West. And who can ever forget the images and stories of the devastation left by Superstorm Sandy?

It's true that scientists and meteorologists cannot prove that any single extreme weather event was directly caused by global climate change. But they cannot deny that extreme weather events are happening more often and with greater intensity. And survey research is proving that Americans don't need a Ph.D. to recognize that climate disruption is a serious problem; the public has acknowledged its existence for three decades.

The media pays a lot of attention to polls about national belief in global climate change. But different organizations have released surveys with strikingly different results. Just take a random sample of recent public surveys on climate issues to see what I mean. For example, Pew Research Center reports that 67 percent of Americans agree "there is solid evidence that the earth's average temperature has been getting warmer over the past few decades." But the latest Associated Press/GfK survey reported a higher number, finding that 78 percent of Americans think that "the world's temperature has probably been going up over the past 100 years."

There is quite a spread between the levels of climate belief found by these two reputable survey projects; a difference that's far outside the margins of error. The difference really boils down to how the questions were asked. Both of these survey questions were asking about rising global temperatures over long periods of time, but one asked whether the respondent thought there is solid evidence for this while the other asked for their personal impression. Ask what they personally believe, and most Americans will say global climate disruption is indeed happening. But ask them about the scientific evidence, and you will get lower levels of agreement. Questions matter. Different survey language yields different results.

So what do all these surveys with all of their different questions, taken together, tell us about Americans' belief in climate disruption? The Skull Global Threats Fund hired The Strategy Team, a group of social scientists and psychologists in Columbus, Ohio, to answer just this question. Researchers performed an advanced meta-analysis of hundreds of national public opinion surveys dating back to 1986, collecting data from over 150 organizations. Weighing all the polls together, they concluded that nearly 75 percent of American adults answered affirmatively when asked questions about the existence of global climate change. The graph below depicts the dispersion of these results from different surveys over time. The solid line represents the changing average belief in global climate disruption from surveys in a given year.


As you can see, Americans increasingly agreed on the existence of global climate disruption between 1986 and 2008. At that time, average belief dropped to below 70 percent until 2010, when it continued its upward climb. Even with that dip (which researchers at Stanford University attributed to increasing skepticism about climate science among some Republicans), Americans' belief in climate disruption has remained remarkably high. And much of the difference in levels of climate-change belief among surveys we see today likely has more to do with the way questions are worded than it does with dramatic shifts in American public opinion.

What does this all mean? To those of us advocating for national action to combat global climate disruption, this research tells us that we shouldn't waste any more time "convincing" Americans that the climate is something that requires our attention. Public opinion has actually been ahead of policymakers on the issue for decades; majorities of Americans are already facing the reality that climate disruption is happening. It's time that our leaders do the same. There is much we can do -- and must do -- to stop fueling the disruption of our global climate.

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