Why the Polls on Climate Change Are Wrong

This Saturday, October 24, is 350.org's International
Day of Climate Action. Citizens all over the world will participate in
rallies and creative actions to let governments and delegates to the
Copenhagen climate change conference know they want real solutions on
climate change now, and not incremental steps or half measures that
punt to some future day of reckoning.

This Saturday, October 24, is 350.org's International
Day of Climate Action. Citizens all over the world will participate in
rallies and creative actions to let governments and delegates to the
Copenhagen climate change conference know they want real solutions on
climate change now, and not incremental steps or half measures that
punt to some future day of reckoning.

Here's a little creative action you can do to mark the occasion right
now from your computer. Go ahead and News-Google the words: New Survey
Climate Change. Watch what happens. At present writing, the top two
search results that come up are utterly, irreconcilably contradictory.
The first is a writeup of a groundbreaking project that I advised, World Wide Views on Global Warming,
which surveyed citizens in the US and 37 other countries; we found that
everywhere, including in the U.S., citizens want much more aggressive
action on climate change than either the U.S. Congress or the
negotiators preparing for the Copenhagen seem prepared to consider. The
second is an article about a new Pew poll that shows the number of Americans who see global warming as a threat has fallen 20% in the last two years.

Who's right? It seems that our representatives in Washington and
delegates to the UN COP15 climate summit in Copenhagen are eager to
believe the second poll. Congressional debate on climate change
legislation and preparations for COP15 are both following a similar pattern of lowering ambitions and expectations,
focusing on limited areas of current agreement and incremental steps,
and deferring more contentious issues of targets, timetables, funding
and enforcement until some later date. We are increasingly hearing from
climate policymakers that it will take more time to do things right,
that we have to meet people where they are instead of imposing radical
reforms from above.

But there is reason to believe that they're dead wrong, and that
citizens are way ahead of the policy makers, despite what some polls
say. Climate change polls typically spend a few minutes on the phone
asking a random sample of people a couple of superficial, often leading
questions, frequently interrupting dinnertime. The process elicits
off-the-cuff reactions to complex issues that are profoundly
consequential to life on our planet. It's a dubious way to gather
opinion on a sober subject like climate change, and many understandably
shrug it off with some cynicism.

World Wide Views on the other hand is a citizen deliberative process
distinct from polling, and expanded for the first time to the global
level. Unlike polls or this summer's over-heated Congressional "town
halls" on health care, World Wide Views participants received balanced
expert information in advance, based on the Fourth Assessment Report of
the Nobel Prize-winning UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Then they spent an entire day learning together, in neutrally
facilitated deliberations, prior to voting on policy recommendations.

Participants were everyday people selected to reflect general
demographic tendencies in their nation or region in terms of age,
gender, education, occupation, urban versus countryside, and ethnicity
or race. Climate experts and staff from organized stakeholder groups
involved with global warming were excluded. "I'm from West Virginia;
coal miners don't talk a lot about climate change," explained Larry
Ragland, a participant from Methuen, Massachusetts. "I'm not an
environmentalist, and two weeks ago I had a completely different
impression of what climate change meant."

Thousands of people like Larry gathered on September 26th in Atlanta,
Boston, Denver, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, and throughout Africa, Asia,
Australia, Europe and Latin America. During the course of the day, they
voted overwhelmingly that their leaders should do far more and go far
faster, not scale back and slow down as they're apparently doing now.

Here are some of the key U.S. results from World Wide Views:

  • 90% of U.S. participants say it is urgent to reach a
    tough, new agreement at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen
    in December and not punt to subsequent meetings.
  • 87% said that
    by 2020 greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and other developed
    nations should be cut 25-40% or even more below 1990 levels (the
    Kerry-Boxer Senate bill would cut US emissions only 20% below 2005
    levels).
  • 71% want nations that fail to meet their obligations under a new
    agreement to be subject to severe or significant economic sanctions.
  • 69% believe the price of fossil fuels should be increased.

And among participants worldwide:

  • 88% want strict targets for keeping global warming within 2
    degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels (half of participants,
    especially in countries hardest hit by climate change, want measures to
    hold temperatures at the current level or even bring them down to
    pre-industrial levels).
  • There is strong consensus for more fair and proportionate burden
    sharing, with 76% favoring 2020 emissions reduction targets for
    fast-growing economies like India, China and Brazil.
  • 83%
    support significant or severe economic sanctions against countries that
    do not live up to their emissions reduction commitments (the citizen
    group in Bangladesh proposed creating an international court to try
    climate cases and "provide opportunity for negatively affected
    countries to claim compensation").
  • 87% want strong new international financial mechanisms to support these goals.

These are ambitions that you'll either find very much dumbed down or
absent entirely in current negotiations on Kerry-Boxer and COP15. You
don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to sense something is wrong with
this picture.

Considering the deep concern and striking calls to action evident in
World Wide Views' global and U.S. deliberative results, what should we
make of conventional polls that say Americans and some others aren't
really all that worked up about climate change and don't support robust
measures to combat it? Are those polls measuring informed public
opinion, or does their approach give political cover to climate
incrementalists and climate change deniers? You decide.

So when citizens around the world take to streets on October 24 to
demand faster, more aggressive action on climate change from Washington
and Copenhagen, don't fall into the trap of dismissing them as somehow
on the fringe. The best and most thoughtful vehicle we have for
registering considered public opinion indicates that in reality those
activists represent the mainstream. If members of Congress and
delegates to Copenhagen want to be responsive to public opinion, as
they claim they do, then World Wide Views provides the survey results
they need to take to heart.