Dueling pollsters add heat to torpid climate debate

It has been the summer of polling discontent, or at least the dog days of disagreement on climate change.

In June, a Stanford University professor got into a spat on public opinion via The New York Times' op-ed page with Gallup and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Now the same professor is releasing a new poll of public attitudes on global warming and criticizing seemingly different conclusions out last week from Rasmussen Reports.

The results come at a time when federal climate legislation is stalled on Capitol Hill and many congressional lawmakers say that their constituents do not rank the issue highly.

"I do think that the varied results that you see in climate surveys may be confusing to the general public," said Christopher Borick, an associate professor of political science at Muhlenberg College.

In his latest data released last week, Stanford University pollster Jon Krosnick reported that more than 70 percent of Americans in three states, Florida, Maine and Massachusetts, say they support government limits on greenhouse gases and think a rise in the world's temperature is caused "mostly or partly" by human activity.


Those results mirror Krosnick's recent findings at the national level and also reveal that more than 67 percent of people in the three states also favored a cap-and-trade system when the concept was explained to them. More than half of respondents in all three states would support a tax increase of $150 yearly if it would lead to an 85 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, he said.

He also found that a hypothetical candidate mentioning belief in man-made climate change in a speech garnered more support than one who did not mention the issue at all. In Florida, support rose by 24 percent for such a candidate.

Stanford's Krosnick finds Americans bullish about CO2 cap

In an interview, Krosnick said he picked those states because they have exhibited different patterns from each other lately with weather. Maine had unusually warm recent winters and normal recent summers, for example, while Massachusetts experienced unusually cool recent summers, he said.

Krosnick found that scorching temperatures or cool climates locally played very little into how people responded to his questions this summer. The bottom line, he said, is that people feel strongly about action on climate change, whether they are in a coal state or a solar state, or one with unusual hotness or coldness.

"If weather conditions are having an impact, they are having relatively little impact on how people think about climate change," Krosnick said.

Some of his findings seemingly stand in contrast to a survey from Rasmussen Reports this August showing that far less than a majority -- or 34 percent -- think that "human activity" is the cause of global warming.

So why the apparent discrepancy from poll to poll?

Krosnick criticized Rasmussen for using computers to make phone calls, which he said was a less accurate survey method. He also said Rasmussen's usage of the phrase "long-term planetary trends" in the question about causes of cause of global warming made no sense and was vague.

In response, Rasmussen spokeswoman Debra Falk said, "study after study has shown that automated polls like those conducted by Rasmussen Reports are at least as accurate as operator-assisted surveys."

"In fact, the questions asked are so different that it's difficult to make comparisons," she said.

Borick of Muhlenberg College said question wording makes a huge difference in how people respond to climate-change questions. Krosnick's usage of the phrase "you may have heard about the idea that the world's temperature may have been going up slowly over the past 100 years" may yield very different results than when 40 years is used as a time span. The 40-year wording seems to bring out stronger concerns in people about global warming, he said.

"If you simply phrase it in a tighter time frame, you might get a very different response," he said. It is not that a given pollster is always wrong, but that he or she is measuring different things, he said.

Adding to the swirling numbers, Borick is coming out with data this month showing that the percentage of Americans who think human activity is behind warming temperatures has gone up since 2008, not down.

Other pollsters question Krosnick's questions

Some of the discrepancies in the 100-year phrasing could explain why Krosnick found seemingly different results from Gallup and Pew about an increase in climate skepticism in the past 12 months, Borick said. The Pew Center reported in December, for example, that there was a 14-point drop between 2008 and 2009 in the percentage of Americans believing global warming was happening and a more than 10-point drop in the percentage who said it was caused by human activity.

That difference in opinion played out in The New York Times this summer when Krosnick wrote an editorial titled "The Climate Majority" stating that huge majorities of Americans still believe the Earth has been gradually warming as the result of human activity and want the government to institute climate regulations.

Krosnick said Pew measured what people had read or heard about, not what they actually thought. Similarly, he said, Gallup was not measuring people's real feelings by beginning questions with a mention of what has been in the news lately.

That prompted retorts on the Times' editorial page from Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew Center, and Frank Newport, the editor in chief of the Gallup Poll.

Kohut wrote that "Mr. Krosnick posits that his question is more legitimate than others. It is but one approach and hardly ideal. ... There are many different questions about climate change, none of them perfect, but almost all, except Mr. Krosnick's, show a significant decline in belief in climate change." He then called Krosnick an "outlier."

Newport said Krosnick "could leave the impression that polls showing a decline in American concern about climate change should be ignored or are incorrect. This would be a mistake."

Last week, Krosnick said he would be responding to Newport and Kohut after doing further analysis. "I'm not going to comment now on that," he said.

Matthew Nisbet, a professor of communications at American University, said Krosnick's work was very important because "it used good data" and hit back against the conventional wisdom that majority support for action on climate is nonexistent.

Regardless of what the public thinks about climate change, the issue does not garner the same level of passion and media attention as topics such as welfare reform in the 1990s that led to passage of comprehensive legislation, said Nisbet. That combination of factors -- along with bipartisan backing in Congress and a heavy push by the president -- is needed to move big packages through Congress, he said.

Until advocates figure out how to tie the issue to job creation, national security and public health problems, it may be difficult for climate legislation to gain traction, he said.

Krosnick's poll on Maine, Massachusetts and Florida was conducted July 9-18 with 600 randomly selected adults from each of the three states.

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