Researchers Find Economics & Political Cues Shape Perception Of Climate Concerns

By Douglas Fischer / The Daily Climate

In March 1981, pollsters tucked the first question about global climate change into a national poll, asking 1,000 adults if they had “heard or read about the ‘greenhouse effect.'”

Fourteen percent replied either “a great deal” or “a fair amount.” The majority – 62 percent – said they had never heard of it.

In the ensuing 30 years, some 300 polls have tracked the nation’s opinion on this topic. Concern has waxed and waned, but it’s never been much more than a blip on the nation’s consciousness. Environmental concerns rarely crack the top 20 issues on national polls; among environmental issues, climate change rarely makes the top 10.

Now a group of sociologists have plumbed those polls to divine the factors driving public opinion on climate change.

study published Monday in the journal Climatic Change finds that the economy, perhaps not surprisingly, is one of the biggest influencers, followed closely by “elite cues” – statements and actions from political leaders, celebrities, advocacy groups and the like.

Weather extremes and efforts to increase scientific literacy have minimal to no impact, the study concluded.

“When Congressional Democrats speak publically about the need for action on climate change, the public increases its perception of the seriousness of the issue,” the researchers wrote in the study.

“When Congressional Republicans vote against key pieces of environment legislation, the public adjusts perceptions of the threat of climate change downward.”

Surprising result

One surprising result of the analysis, said Robert Brulle, the study’s lead author and a sociologist at Drexel University in Philadelphia, is the volatility of public opinion.

Concern about global warming is driven by current events, he said, and has almost no relation to past levels of concern. That, Brulle added, is a sign that efforts to educate the public to climate science are not sticking and should be rethought.

“That’s a really key finding,” he said. “If you’re going to have an information campaign, it’s going to have to be constant….  It’s not permanent. You’re not going to convince the American public once and for all.”


Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, called Brulle’s approach “very innovative” but was not surprised to see economics play such a large role.

“Particularly in bad economic times, there’s a finite ‘pool of worry,'” he said. “That dramatically reduces the bandwidth to think about other potential threats, such as climate change.”

Radical polarization

But Maibach noted public perception of climate change has undergone a radical polarization in the past 15 years. When the Clinton Administration was negotiating the Kyoto Protocol, two out of three Americans felt climate change was a problem worth addressing, he said.

Since then, the proportion of Democrats concerned about the issue have moved from two out of three to closer to nine out of 10. Republicans, meanwhile, have shifted almost as dramatically the other direction, from two out of three to three out of 10, he said.

“There’s been this divergence, and it’s been a politically defined divergence,” Maibach said. “That’s given rise to the cues of the political elite that are so important.”

The study looked at five factors that potentially account for changes in public concern about climate change: extreme weather, media coverage, science education, elite cues and advocacy efforts. It also examined external events, such as war, unemployment, and the price of oil.

It found media coverage to be a key driver – the greater the quantity of media coverage, the greater the level of public concern, the authors concluded. But that, Brulle said, prompts the question: What drives media coverage?

That answer, he added, is clear. The most important factor is the “elite partisan battle over the issue,” the study concluded.

“A great deal of focus has been devoted to the analysis and development of various communication techniques to better convey an understanding of climate change to individual members of the public,” the report concluded. “These efforts have a minor influence and are dwarfed by the effect of the divide on environmental issues in the political elite.” is a foundation-funded news service covering climate change. Contact editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer [at]

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 This work by The Daily Climate is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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