11 June 2010

Follow Up on Public Opinion

There was a lot of interesting discussion following my post on public opinion and climate change. In the short term I won't have a chance to respond to every comment and email arising from that thread, but let me offer the following as a capsule summary of my views (and the list below is a set of assertions that I back up in TCF). I believe that the evidence amply supports the following conclusions:

1. A large majority of the public, in the US and more generally in most places worldwide, believes that humans are influencing the climate through the release of greenhouse gases.

2. A similar large majority of the public finds the prospect of such an influence to be troubling.

3. Public views on #1 and #2 have been up and down, but remarkably, have been fairly consistent for a period of several decades. There is a noted partisan split (especially in the US, but also elsewhere) in public opinion.

4. The public consistently ranks climate change as a relatively low concern when asked to prioritize. Issues such as the economy, jobs, education, crime, war and others are regularly deemed more important.

5. The public supports action to reduce emissions, to diversify energy supply, to increase energy security and to do so comprehensively and internationally. This support is bipartisan.

6. Such support has been consistent for decades and exceeds the level of support observed for other issues for which action was taken.

7. The public overwhelming is willing to pay some price for the attainment of energy and climate goals, but that willingness is severely limited. The price must not be high.

8. Increasing numbers of the public believe that climate science has been exaggerated in public debate. This trend occurs across the political spectrum.

9. Public support for emissions reductions is, at best, only loosely tied to public opinion on climate science. Even as the public believes in increasing numbers that the science has been exaggerated in public debate, support for action remains strong.

10. The public, as on most every complex scientific or technical issue, is not particularly literate about climate science.

The bottom line?

The contours of public opinion on the science and the economics of climate change have been set now for many years, even decades. The public believes that humans affect the climate, that they want action, that that action should not cost too much, that there a range of reasons for action and that climate science is often exaggerated.

These views have been stable for a long time and absent something really dramatic, are unlikely to change appreciably. Thus, they provide a set of ground rules or boundary conditions for effective climate policy.

The public's opinions are clear and consistent, however the experts do not seem to have yet heard them.