You Ought to Have a Look: Polls, Polls and More Poles

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger. While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic. Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

Apart from the Northeast blizzard, its global warming hype, and postmortem analysis, climate talk during the past week has been dominated by polls … and poles … and Poles.

First off is a Pew Research Center poll that found there was a growing difference between what scientists think about some “science” issues and what the general public thinks about them. One take—an overly worried one—on the “gulf” in opinions is presented by reformed genetically modified organism (GMO) activist Mark Lynas in his article “Even in 2015, the Public Doesn’t Trust Scientists” in the Washington Post. On issues such as vaccine effectiveness, evolution, GMO food safety, and causes of climate change, the level of agreement between the general public and scientific consensus is much less than Lynas is comfortable with and he worries that this growing divide—that he largely lays at the feet of “lobbyists and activists”—has “serious implications for democratic governance.”

This seems a bit overly dramatic.

What is the “correct” level of public agreement with the prevailing scientific consensus? Just as skepticism is a valuable trait for scientists, so too is it for the general public. In many cases, policy and personal decisions are based on much more than simple (known) science alone.

We suggest that the situation would be worse if the general public swallowed everything scientists say—even in the form of the prevailing “scientific consensus”—hook, line, and sinker.

After all, what was once prevailing thought often turns out not to have been true.

In essence, lagging public opinions acts to steady and slow federal policy decisions that would, if based only on the current scientific consensus, prove to be rather herky-jerky.  We have enough of that already.

While this may prove frustrating for scientists working in policy-relevant fields, we don’t see the future with 20-20 vision, so a degree of caution is preferable to full speed ahead. And that, on a general level, is what the divide between public opinion and scientific opinion provides.

That brings us to the results of a New York Times/Stanford University poll on public attitudes on federal actions directed at climate change. The Times’ headline screamed, “Most Americans Support Government Action on Climate Change, Poll Finds.”

Of course, the pollsters didn’t ask the most important question: How much are you willing to spend in an attempt to mitigate future global warming? In previous polls, when such a question was asked, the answer was always “not much.”

And like previous Stanford polls, the respondents seemed to show a lack of understanding about how the U.S. system of taxes works. (But who can really blame them for that?) While they largely were opposed, or shied away from, imposing a tax on their own greenhouse gas-generating activities (like using electricity or gasoline), they largely were in favor of giving corporate tax breaks for renewable energy deployment and development, and for less greenhouse gas–emitting fossil fuel use. But what goes around, comes around.

What we found interesting was what seemed like a lessening of the extreme position that human greenhouse emissions are in no way affecting the climate. This position is being replaced by a realization that climate change is occurring and we are playing some role in it. This seems like another example of the acceptance of the “lukewarmers” stance on global warming: that it is happening, that humans are in part responsible, but that the result will be manageable more so through adaptation and innovation than through government policies aimed at mitigation.

And a word to the wise: before any politician (mis)takes the poll results as reason to pursue, say, a carbon tax, recall that support of past greenhouse gas emission limiting measures affected subsequent elections in big ways: in 2010 after the House passage of cap and trade, and again in 2014 in Kentucky and West Virginia (a result of EPA  regulations). So tread lightly.

The past week was not just dominated by talk of opinion polls, but also by talk of polarized opinions.  

U.K. economist Richard Tol posted a somewhat disturbing blog piece on the polarization of climate policy, highlighting the role of “radical greens”—a group that is becoming increasingly, well, radical.

Tol begins:

The debate on climate policy has long been polarized. Asking an utterly sensible question—which of the many options is the best course of action—is met with howls of derision from both sides. Some protest the idea of taking climate change at all serious. Others are convinced that the maximum action is not enough.

Polarization is not conducive to sound policy.

According to Tol, things have recently turned nasty:

There are now elements in the environmental movement who are so worried about the state of the planet that they have lost all sense of proportion. This is alarming for those at the receiving end of their mindless wrath. It does not help to protect the environment either. Just like Boko Haram does not endear anyone to Muslims, green radicals taint all environmentalists. But whereas Islamic leaders immediately distance themselves from any new outrage, environmental leaders pretend nothing happened.

Tol concludes:

Environmental protection has come a long way since the early 1970s. Pollution is much reduced, and care for the environment is widely shared and supported—at least in Europe. Sensible policies and respectable pressure groups are the best way forward to solve the remaining environmental problems. Green radicals risk throwing that away.

Have a look at Tol’s article for an example of how radical things have become—it’s kind of frightening.

And finally, on a lighter note, comes news from a research team led by a group of Polish scientists that calving icebergs make different sounds depending on whether they fall into the water from above or whether they slide into the water from below. According to Oskar Glowacki, a researcher from the Institute of Geophysics at the Polish Academy of Sciences, “We just place the hydrophones—underwater microphones—in the water and listen to the sounds.”

They produced an audiovisual to illustrate their finding. You can check it out here (if you dare). Sometimes it’s little wonder why the public isn’t always engaged with scientists!