This is a guest post by Leo Barasi who writes about public opinion on the website Noise of the Crowd. It is in response to Green Alliance’s new paper on public opinion and the environment.
Coverage of public opinion on climate change is never just about reporting numbers. Without appreciating the need for journalists to tell a story, we can never really understand why climate change polls are reported as they are.
Over the last decade, two distinct narratives have been told about what the public think of climate change. Each of these narratives has been so dominant for a time that it has been difficult for alternative views of public opinion to get much attention.
The first, which dominated for most of the noughties, was that climate change was increasingly settled in the public’s minds as a great concern. Polls on climate change were rare for much of the decade, but when they did appear in the media, the coverage tended to acknowledge that the public was worried, although perhaps unsure about the risks or about possible solutions, as in this Observer article.
As a result, there was little prominent dissent from the view that climate change was becoming a more important issue for most people, along with a belief that the world needed to take decisive action.
The rise of scepticism
But by the end of 2009, this prevailing narrative about public views on climate change had given way to a very different account.
It happened quite suddenly, around the time of the COP15 in Copenhagen. Now, the dominant frame was that growing numbers of people doubted the existence of serious man-made climate change, and that there was increased resistance to measures to tackle it.
Opinion polls were important to the development of this new account. For about a year, from late 2009, polls were repeatedly used to show the same narrative: that fewer people were now worried about climate change.
The sheer weight of polls, reported across the media, gave the overwhelming impression of an ongoing change in opinion. But this was misleading: in fact, there appears to have been a one-off fall in concern about climate change, which happened between November’09 and January ’10.
The difficulty in understanding opinion lies in the fact that media outlets want to report their own polls, as an exclusive story. They’re much less interested in repeating polls that another newspaper or broadcaster have commissioned.
So over a period of several months, we saw different polls in outlets from the Daily Mail to the BBC and Guardian, which essentially restated the same phenomenon as if it were a new finding. The result was a powerful new narrative, that concern about climate change was experiencing an ongoing decline.
There are two reasons why it’s useful to see this as a new dominant narrative about public opinion, rather than as straight-forward reporting of opinion.
The first is that the decline in concern about climate change was reported selectively. At the same time as this concern fell, people also became less worried about (almost) everything else, including immigration, and law and order.
By focusing on climate change, the media missed the much bigger fact that people had become less worried about everything that wasn’t the economy.
The second point lost in this new story is that ‘belief’ in climate science is often a poor guide to people’s desire for action to be taken to avert climate change. A fascinating poll in January ’10 found that, among people who said climate change was an unproven theory, nearly two-thirds were still satisfied with the Copenhagen Accord’s aim of reducing emissions.
Today’s dominant narrative
So the new narrative of public opinion on climate change looks to have been overstated, selective and misleading. But it still was utterly dominant, and continues to be influential.
There is no evidence that concern about climate change fell further after early ’10, and there is growing evidence that it has recovered some of the ground. This has prevented further reports of polls that show falling numbers worried about climate change. Yet, the story has adapted and survived.
Now, the focus has shifted to apparent resistance to measures to tackle climate change. What’s interesting is that this goes beyond the Mail (energy bills) and the Telegraph (windfarms).
The Guardian’s recent reporting of a poll on energy sources is informative. The poll found windfarms to be easily the most popular source of power, with about three times as much support as coal. The article could have been headlined “Overwhelming local opposition to nuclear and coal power, poll finds”.
Yet, the poll also found an increase in opposition to all forms of power – including wind – and instead the headline was “Local opposition to onshore windfarms has tripled, poll shows”. The dominant story of the last two years informed how the findings were interpreted, even in the Guardian.
We should never expect polls in the media to provide a completely objective account of reality. They are commissioned, prepared and reported with the aim of generating news stories. That news will almost inevitably reflect the dominant narrative of the time, and polling should always be seen in that light.
What people really think about the environment: an analysis of public opinion, is published today by Green Alliance.