googlead166c37c697d4d3.html Glenn Ashton Author Blog: Global Warming – The Tough Sell

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Global Warming – The Tough Sell

What does an elephant have to do with whether the number of Americans who believe global warming is a problem is – according to some polls – dropping?
Plenty.
George Lakoff wrote a brilliant analysis of the use of framing in his book Don't Think of an Elephant. He challenged his students not to think of an elephant for the next five minutes while they did something else and not one of them was able to do so. This illustrates the power of framing. Framing is a way of describing things in such a way as to influence the debate.
So what?
How does this affect whether fewer Americans now believe global warming exists?
Simply this: The way a question is framed in a poll affects the answer. And the answers to some of the recent polls are wrong, because the questions are wrong.
Who says so?
The Woods Institute for the Environment sponsored a series of surveys by Professor Jon Kronsnick, professor in Humanities and Social sciences at Stanford University:
"Several national surveys released during the last eight months have been interpreted as showing that fewer and fewer Americans believe that climate change is real, human-caused and threatening to people," Krosnick said. "But our new survey shows just the opposite."
There has been a drop – but these changes are mostly climate skeptics:
"Our surveys reveal a small decline in the proportion of people who believe global warming has been happening, from 84 percent in 2007 to 74 percent today," Krosnick said.
"Statistical analysis of our data revealed that this decline is attributable to perceptions of recent weather changes by the minority of Americans who have been skeptical about climate scientists."
What do Americans want?

The surveys showed that a majority of Americans want the federal government to limit the air pollution that businesses emit (86%), and limit greenhouse gases emissions by businesses (76%), and only 14% said
the USA should not take action to fight global warming unless other major emitting countries (such as China and India) did so as well.
However, most Americans wanted tax credits to be used as the lever, rather than tax increases on electricity or gasoline.

How Important is Global Warming to Americans?
Another Woods Institute study examined how many Americans thought fighting global warming was the most important issue facing the USA. The study found that the answer was that global warming came far below the economy, but that if the question was changed, the rankings changed, with global warming being viewed as a the most serious issue.
This study looked at the traditional question asked in past decades by Gallup in its MIP survey (Most Important Problem). If the question was changed to use the word serious instead of important, and to cover problems facing the world rather than just the USA, and to talk about seriousness if not stopped, the results were dramatically different.
The revised question they tested was:
“What do you think will be the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?”
The conclusion was:
In fact, global warming and the environment were the most frequently mentioned problems when people were asked the new question wording.
Furthermore, we found that 76% of Americans in late 2009 wanted a lot or a great deal of government effort to be devoted to issues that will affect the world in the future if nothing is done to stop them.
Therefore, the new, future-oriented MIP question helps to provide a fuller picture of the agenda items to which Americans attach significance.
The Denial Problem

And there are psychological reasons why many people do not believe that global warming is serious, as explained by Kari Marie Norgaard, a Whitman College sociologist who’s studied public attitudes towards climate science, in a December 2009 interview with Wired.
The reason is that such people are in denial:
Our response to disturbing information is very complex. We negotiate it. We don’t just take it in and respond in a rational way... 
Climate change is disturbing. It’s something we don’t want to think about. So what we do in our everyday lives is create a world where it’s not there, and keep it distant...
If I don’t want to believe that climate change is true, that my lifestyle and high carbon emissions are causing devastation, then it’s convenient to say that it doesn’t.
 Norgaard says part of the reason is our sense of hopelessness (click here, here and here for our earlier posts on this topic):
And the reason is that we don’t have a clear sense of what we can do. Any community organizer knows that if you want people to respond to something, you need to tell them what to do, and make it seem do-able.
Stanford University psychologist Jon Krosnock has studied this, and showed that people stop paying attention to climate change when they realize there’s no easy solution. People judge as serious only those problems for which actions can be taken.
Any lessons for us?

Lessons to be learned from these studies is to be careful about the results of surveys which do not ask the appropriate question, and to ensure that any dialogue about global warming present solutions – hope, not just despair.

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