American public opinion

Gallup reports a steep rise in the number of Americans thinking that climate change is exaggerated. Well, that’s how the US newspapers reported the results. A look at the detailed polling responses gives a slightly different view. The change more reflects a decline in the perceived accuracy of news reporting rather than a substantial swing in attitudes towards the threat from global warming.


The polling company has asked Americans about global warming for the last ten years:

This is how Gallup presented these numbers in a chart:

The question asked by Gallup is not a simple one. It asks about the interviewee’s attitude towards the presentation of the dangers of global warming in the news media. It could be that the media has changed, not the average American. And if the press and TV had become more strident and more evangelical about the threat from climate change during the last few years, attitudes among the general population might have lagged behind. They might see the media as increasingly unreliable.

We cannot know whether it is the media or the general public that have changed their views. But the Gallup research does tell us what sorts of people have begun to think that the media presentation of climate change is too extreme. Broadly speaking it is older people and Republicans that now see ‘exaggeration’ where they didn’t before.

Ten years ago, whether you were a Democrat or a Republican didn’t matter very much to your perception of climate change. Now it does. Similarly, in the last year attitudes among different age groups have diverged enormously:

However, the degree of change in underlying attitudes about the risks of climate change is very much less obvious:

There has been a decline in the perceived severity of the climate threat in the last year, but the change is quite small. A relatively severe US winter may have affected popular perceptions. Nevertheless, the number seeing global warming as a serious threat is still substantially higher than five or ten years ago. That fact didn’t get reported by the US news media.

However, any sense that the US public might be happy to see substantial action on climate change should be tempered. The Gallup survey also reports that Americans see many other environmental problems as much more pressing than global warming. Chief among their concerns is the need to preserve the quality and availability of fresh water. (It may be relevant that February 2009 was the driest month across the US since the start of proper records.) Unfortunately, the decline in fresh water supplies and global warming are closely intertwined. The western states are very vulnerable both to desertification and the melting of the snow caps in the Rockies that provide summer water supplies. Perhaps the news media whose stories on climate change are not as convincing as they were should spend less time on temperatures and more attention to the possibility of increased US droughts.