If you follow the popular polls, you might think that Americans are growing ever more skeptical about man-made climate change -- despite the consensus among published climate scientists.
That's simply not true, Jon Krosnick of Stanford University told an audience of social scientists and cognitive researchers Wednesday, in Garrison, N.Y. He maintained that most Americans do, in fact, believe.
The problem, Krosnick said during his talk at the Garrison Institute's annual Climate, Mind and Behavior symposium, is that we haven't been asking the public the right questions. The other problem: Legislators are reading their misleading answers and hearing from a vocal minority of constituents.
"Public opinion has the potential to move legislators," he said. "But methods that political scientists are using to document the public will are going at a snail's pace."
With funding from major news outlets such as Reuters and ABC News, Krosnick's team has been conducting its own national surveys over the last several years. Since 2009, their findings have diverged from those of other survey organizations.
Gallup and Pew polls show that the percentage of Americans that believe in climate change now hovers around 50 percent, but Krosnick's latest poll -- which asked the question in a more detailed way -- suggests the figure is 83 percent -- up from 79 percent in 1997. Of the global warming believers, the majority also reported thinking that the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities play a role. The trend held after the researchers broke the data down by political party: 66 percent of Republicans said climate change is happening.
Further, not a single U.S. state had a majority opinion on the skeptical side, noted Krosnick. Even in Oklahoma, the home of one of the country's most outspoken skeptics, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a large majority of the people polled agreed with the scientific consensus.
Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, doesn't share the same optimism. Combining various public opinion polls, including Krosnick's, he sees a downward trend in the percentage of Americans believing in global warming since 2007. Further, in a new open-ended poll, he's found that the first thing that came to the minds of 23 percent of people when they thought about climate change was a naysayer thought, such as a recent record snowstorm or a conspiracy theory. This is up from 7 percent in 2003, he told The Huffington Post.
Krosnick and his colleagues also looked at two ways of framing a question about the public's ranking of issues. In response to "What is the most important problem facing this country today?," the economy ranked at the top with global warming dead last. When this question was reworded to ask, "What will be the most important problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?," the results were reversed: Global warming ranked No. 1.
"This message is not getting across to Washington," said Krosnick.
Scott Brophy, a philosophy professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, agreed that politicians are "out of touch" with the thinking of their constituents. Yet the problem remains, he said, that "1 in every 3 or 4 Americans doesn't believe in a basic fact."
For democracy to work, according to Brophy, we need to understand how and why people don't trust the scientific facts.
Research has shown that people are motivated to find information that supports their beliefs. "Encountering counterarguments causes us to marshal forces like an army of white blood cells to defend against them," said Brophy.
He pointed to the influence of massive disinformation campaigns such as the recently outed Heartland Institute. "This is a real threat to democracy," he told HuffPost.
"Krosnick is not addressing the nature of our political decision-making process, which is not driven by majority rule," added Bob Doppelt, executive director of The Resource Innovation Group, a non-profit organization affiliated with Willamette University. "It's driven by elites that paid for, fund and have the most access and, therefore, the most influence over officials ..."
In a way, the whole discussion is beside the point, according to Brophy. The question we should be asking, he said: "What are the policies we should adopt?"
"There, reasonable people can disagree. Policy doesn't automatically follow from the facts," added Brophy. "Yet we continue arguing about whether the Earth is round. This is crazy."