Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S., 2002–2010

Abstract

This paper conducts an empirical analysis of the factors affecting U.S. public concern about the threat of climate change between January 2002 and December 2010. Utilizing Stimson’s method of constructing aggregate opinion measures, data from 74 separate surveys over a 9-year period are used to construct quarterly measures of public concern over global climate change. We examine five factors that should account for changes in levels of concern: 1) extreme weather events, 2) public access to accurate scientific information, 3) media coverage, 4) elite cues, and 5) movement/countermovement advocacy. A time-series analysis indicates that elite cues and structural economic factors have the largest effect on the level of public concern about climate change. While media coverage exerts an important influence, this coverage is itself largely a function of elite cues and economic factors. Weather extremes have no effect on aggregate public opinion. Promulgation of scientific information to the public on climate change has a minimal effect. The implication would seem to be that information-based science advocacy has had only a minor effect on public concern, while political mobilization by elites and advocacy groups is critical in influencing climate change concern.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Notes

  1. 1.

    For example, see the debate between Jon Krosnick based on his NY Times Op-Ed (NY Times June 8, 2010) and the critique provided by the Editor in Chief of Gallup, Frank Newport, in the blog posting of June 10, 2010 (online at http://pollingmatters.gallup.com/2010/06/reflections-on-jon-krosnicks-global.html—accessed 4/19/2011.

  2. 2.

    See the work of Krosnick (http://woods.stanford.edu/research/surveys.html) and the Six Americas Project at the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication: http://www.climatechangecommunication.org/images/files/Six_Americas_June_2010percent281percent29.pdf

  3. 3.

    The specific questions used in the analysis, dates administered, and surveying organization, and the data used in the analysis are provided in Supplementary Material online. All of the surveys utilized in the calculation of the CCTI were national samples.

  4. 4.

    A complete listing of the survey marginal scores, date of administration, and sample size are provided in the Supplementary Material, Table S1.

  5. 5.

    The WCALC program is available online at http://www.unc.edu/~jstimson/ .

  6. 6.

    Specific details about the variables, key words used in searches, specific magazines used in different categories, and the full data used in the analysis is provided in the Supplementary Material.

  7. 7.

    We also constructed a measure of major landfalling hurricanes in the U.S. based on data from the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) data set (www.credd.be/). However, it produced negative effects and was collinear with the other weather extremes measures, so we do not show it.

  8. 8.

    In order to test for the possibility of effects carrying over from one quarter to another, we ran our regression results including the lagged CCTI as an independent variable. In all cases, this procedure resulted in non-significance for all of the independent variables. This is in line with the analysis conducted by Achen (2001). He argues that the addition of a lagged dependent variable (LDV) can inaccurately degrade the effects of the other variables when serial correlation and trending exist in the exogenous variable (as is the case here). Keele and Kelly (2005) further note that if the process is considered to be stationary, the addition of the LDV will bias the analyses. Both the Phillips-Perron and Dickey-Fuller unit root tests showed that the dependent variable is stationary. Since the statistical literature argues against the inclusion of a LDV when the underlying data is stationary and serial correlation is present we only show models without the LDV as they will provide the most statistically accurate estimates.

References

  1. Achen C (2001) Why lagged dependent variables can suppress the explanatory power of other independent variables. Paper presented at the Annual meeting of the Political Methodology Section of the American Political Science Association, 2000

  2. Agnone J (2007) Amplifying public opinion: the policy impact of the U.S. environmental movement. Soc Forces 85(4):1593–1620

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Andrews K, Caren N (2010) Making the news: movement organizations, media attention, and the public agenda. Am Sociol Rev 75(6):841–866

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Atkinson M, Baumgartner F, Coggins K, Stimson J (2011) Mood and agendas: developing policy-specific conceptions of mood. Paper presented at the Annual Meetings of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago IL. March 31, 2011

  5. Bauer M, Allum N, Miller S (2007) What can we learn from 25-years of PUS research? Liberating and expanding the agenda. Public Underst Sci 16:79–95

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Best S (1999) The sampling problem in measuring policy mood: an alternative solution. J Polit 61(3):721–740

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Bolsen T, Cook F (2008) The polls-trends: public opinion on energy policy: 1974–2006. Public Opin Quart 72(2):364–388

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Bord RJ, O’Connor RE, Fisher (2000) A. In what sense does the public need to understand global climate change? Public Underst Sci 9:199–212

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Borick C, Rabe B (2010) A reason to believe; examining the factors that determine individual views on global warming. Soc Sci Q 91(3):777–800

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Brewer PR, Pease A (2008) Federal climate politics in the United States: polarization and paralysis. In: Compston H, Bailey I (eds) Turning down the heat: the politics of climate policy in affluent democracies. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, pp 85–103

    Google Scholar 

  11. Brick P, McGreggor Cawley R (2008) Producing political climate change; the hidden life of U.S. environmentalism. Environ Polit 17(2):200–218

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Darmofal D (2009) Elite cues and citizen disagreement with expert opinion. Polit Res Quart 58(3):381–395

    Google Scholar 

  13. Dumitrescu D, Mughan A (2010) Mass media and democratic politics. In: Leicht KT, Craig Jenkins J (eds) The handbook of politics: state and civil society in global perspective. Springer Publishers, New York, pp 477–491

    Google Scholar 

  14. Enns PK, Kellstedt P (2008) Policy mood and political sophistication: why everybody moves mood. British J Polit Sci 38:433–454

    Google Scholar 

  15. Erikson, Mackuen RM, Stimson J (2002) The Macro Polity, Cambridge.

  16. Gamson W, Wolfsfeld G (1993) Movements and media as interacting systems. Ann Am Acad Polit Soc Sci 528:114–125

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Gamson WA, Croteau D, Hoynes W, Sasson T (1992) Media images and the social construction of reality. Annu Rev Sociol 18:373–393

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Gelpi C, Feaver P, Reifler J (2009) Paying the human costs of war: American public opinion and casualties in military conflicts. Princeton University Press, Princeton

    Google Scholar 

  19. Gleason K, Lawrimore J, Levinson D, Karl T, Karoly D (2008) A revised U.S. climate extremes index. J Clim 21:2124–2137

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Greenberg J, Knight G, Westersund E (2011) Spinning climate change: corporate and NGO public relations strategies in Canada and the United States. Int Commun Gaz 73(1–2):65–82

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Habermas J (1989) The public sphere: an encyclopedia article. In: Bronner E, Kellner D (eds) Critical theory and society. Routledge, New York, pp 102–107

    Google Scholar 

  22. Hamilton L (2010) Education, politics and opinions about climate change evidence for interaction effects. Clim Chang 104(2):379–422

    Google Scholar 

  23. Hindman DB (2009) Mass media flow and differential distribution of politically disputed beliefs: the belief gap hypothesis. Journal Mass Commun Quart 86(4):790–808

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Kahn ME, Kotchen MJ (2010) Environmental concern and the business cycle: the chilling effect of recession. NBER Working Paper No. 16241, issued July 2010.

  25. Keele L, Kelly N (2005) Dynamic models for dynamic theories: the ins and outs of lagged dependent variables. Political Analysis 14(2):186–205

    Google Scholar 

  26. Kellstedt PM (2003) The mass media and the dynamics of American racial attitudes. Cambridge

  27. Kellstedt, Zahran PS, Vedlitz A (2008) Personal efficacy, the information environment, and attitudes toward global warming and climate change in the United States. Risk Anal 28(1):113–126

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Koopmans R (2004) Movements and media: selection processes and evolutionary dynamics in the public sphere. Theory Soc 33:367–391

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Krosnick J, Holbrook A, Lowe L, Visser P (2008) The origins and consequences of democratic citizens’ policy agendas: a study of popular concern about global warming, Climatic Change Spring

  30. Lenz G (2009) Learning and opinion change, not priming; reconsidering the priming hypothesis. Am J Polit Sci 53(4):821–837

    Google Scholar 

  31. Lowry W (2008) Disentangling energy policy from environmental policy. Soc Sci Q 89(5):1195–1211

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Luke T (2005) The death of environmentalism or the advent of public ecology? Organ Environ 18:489–494

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. MacKuen M (1981) Social communication and the mass policy agenda. In: Mackuen MB, Coombs SL (eds) More than news; media power in public affairs. Sage, Beverly hills, pp 19–144

    Google Scholar 

  34. Malka A, Krosnick J, Langer G (2009) The association of knowledge with concern about global warming; trusted information sources shape public thinking. Risk Anal 29(5):633–647

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Marquart-Pyatt SR, Shwom T, Dietz R, Dunlap S, Kaplowitz AMcCright, Zahran S (2011) Understanding public opinion on climate change: a call for research. Environment 53(4):38–42

    Google Scholar 

  36. Mazur A (1998) Global environmental change in the news: 1987-90 vs. 1992–1996. Int Sociol 13:457–472

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Mazur A (2009) American generation of environmental warnings: avian influenza and global warming. Human Ecol Rev 16(1):17–26

    Google Scholar 

  38. Mazur A, Lee J (1993) Sounding the global alarm: environmental issues in the U.S. national news. Soc Stud Sci 23:681–720

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. McCombs M (2004) Setting the agenda: the mass media and public opinion. Polity, Malden

    Google Scholar 

  40. McCright A, Dunlap R (2011) The politicization of climate change and polarization in the American public’s views of global warming, 2001–2010. Sociol Q 52(2):155–194

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. McDonald S (2009) Changing climate, changing minds; applying the literature on media effects, public opinion, and the issue-attention cycle to increase public understanding of climate change. Int J Sustain Commun 4:45–63

    Google Scholar 

  42. Oreskes N, Conway E (2010) Merchants of doubt. Bloomsbury Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  43. Orr D (2005) Death and resurrection: the future of environmentalism. Conserv Biol 19:992–995

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Pfau M, Haigh M, Sims J, Wigley S (2007) The influence of corporate front-group stealth campaigns. Commun Res 34(1):73–99

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Pidgeon N, Fischoff B (2011) The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks. Nat Clim Change 1:35–41

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Pooley E (2010) The climate war: true believers, power brokers, and the fight to save the earth. Hyperion Press, NewYork

    Google Scholar 

  47. Reynolds T, Bostrom A, Read D, Granger Morgan M (2010) Now what do people know about global climate change? survey sudies of educated laypeople. Risk Anal 80(10):1520–1538

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Sampei Y, Aoyagi-Usui M (2008) Mass-media coverage, its influence on public awareness of climate-change issues, and implications for Japan’s national campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Glob Environ Chang 19:203–212

    Google Scholar 

  49. Shipan C, Lowry W (2001) Environmental policy and party divergence in congress. Polit Res Quart 54(2):245–263

    Google Scholar 

  50. Smith G (2010) Politicians and the news media; how elite attacks influence perceptions of media bias. Int J Press/Polit 15:319–343

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Spence A, Poortinga W, Butler C, Pidgeon N (2011) Perceptions of climate change and willingness to save energy related to flood experience. Nat Clim Change 1:46–49

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Sterman J (2011) Communicating climate change risks in a skeptical world. Clim Chang 108:811–826

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Stimson JA (1999) Public opinion in America; moods, cycles and swings, 2nd edn. Westview Press, Boulder Co

    Google Scholar 

  54. Stimson JA (2004) Tides of consent: how public opinion shapes American politics. Cambridge University Press, NY

    Google Scholar 

  55. Strömbäch J, Kiousis S (2011) Political public relations: principles and applications. Routledge Press, New York

  56. Wanta W, Hu Yu (1994) Time-lag differences in the agenda setting process; an examination of five news media. Int J Public Opin Res 6:225–240

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Watt JH, Mazza M, Snyder L (1993) Agenda-setting effects of television news coverage and the effects decay curve. Commun Res 20:408–435

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Weber E (2011) Climate change hits home. Nat Clim Change 1:25–26

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Weber E, Stern P (2011) Public understanding of climate change in the United States. Am Psychol 66(4):315–328

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Yin J (1999) Elite Opinion and Media Diffusion: Exploring Environmental Attitudes. Harvard Int J Press/Polit 4(3):62–86

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Zaller JR (1992) The nature and origins of mass opinion. University Press, New York: Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  62. Zhao X (2009) Media use and global warming perceptions: a snapshot of the reinforcing spirals. Commun Res 36:698–723

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Zhao X, Leiserowitz A, Maibach E, Roser-Renouf C (2011) Attention to science/environment news positively predicts and attention to political news negatively predicts global warming risk perceptions and policy support. J Commun. (in press)

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Robert J. Brulle.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

ESM 1

(DOCX 77 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Brulle, R.J., Carmichael, J. & Jenkins, J.C. Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S., 2002–2010. Climatic Change 114, 169–188 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-012-0403-y

Download citation

Keywords

  • Climate Change
  • Public Opinion
  • Media Coverage
  • Public Concern
  • Address Climate Change