Gallup: Many Americans Think Media Exaggerate Global Warming

Latest poll also finds waning concern about climate change

On Wednesday, the Gallup polling organization released its annual survey of environmental issues. Among the key findings:

Although a majority of Americans believe the seriousness of global warming is either correctly portrayed in the news or underestimated, a record-high 41% now say it is exaggerated. This represents the highest level of public skepticism about mainstream reporting on global warming seen in more than a decade of Gallup polling on the subject.

Gallup noted “the trend in the ‘exaggerated’ response has been somewhat volatile since 2001.” As recently as 2006 and as long ago as 1998, over sixty percent of Americans thought the news media was correctly portraying or underestimating the threat of global warming, while only thirty percent thought otherwise.

“All of the past year’s uptick in cynicism about the seriousness of global warming coverage occurred among Americans 30 and older,” Gallup reported. Republicans are also increasingly and far more likely than Democrats to believe the media’s coverage is exaggerated—a trend that Gallup has been following since 1997—but “this year marks a relatively sharp increase among independents as well,” the report stated.

In addition to the conclusions about coverage, Gallup also found that worries about global warming rank dead last among eight environmental issues. At the top of the list are concerns about the cleanliness of availability of water, followed by air pollution, deforestation, and the extinction of plants and animals.

Six in 10 Americans indicate that they are highly worried about global warming, including 34% who are worried “a great deal” and 26% “a fair amount.” Overall worry is similar to points at the start of the decade, but is down from 66% a year ago and from 65% in 2007.

Ironically, the Gallup poll is being released in the wake of a handful of recent studies, which have found that the impacts of warming will be felt for 1,000 years even if greenhouse-gas emissions are cut; that those emissions have been rising faster than expected; and that sea levels may rise much faster than predicted. So what gives?

New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin and American University professor Matthew Nisbet—both of whom wrote blog posts about the Gallup environment survey—have been arguing for some time that hyperbolic predictions about the catastrophic impacts of climate change are counterproductive and feed accusations of global warming “alarmism.” Ironically, in attempting to make his case, Revkin has come under fire from a number of environmentally minded bloggers who would like to see media coverage be much more adamant about the threat of climate change and the urgent need to find solutions.

Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm, one Revkin’s biggest critics, thinks that the reason for the lingering public apathy is not that the media has exaggerated the consequences of warming, but rather that it has downplayed them. A number of journalists, such as freelancer Keith Kloor, who also had a good analysis of the Gallup environment survey, counter that bloggers like Romm ignore their own role in fostering perceptions of alarmism. Like Nisbet, Kloor thinks that many of the reasons for public intransigence lie outside the media. Indeed, Gallup itself suggested that might be case:

Gallup has documented declines in public concern about the environment at times when other issues, such as a major economic downturn or a national crisis like 9/11, absorbed Americans’ attention. To some extent that may be true today, given the troubling state of the U.S. economy. However, the solitary drop in concern this year about global warming, among the eight specific environmental issues Gallup tested, suggests that something unique may be happening with the issue.

Yet the solitary drop in concern for global warming should not be that surprising. The perception of risk is clearly tied to immediacy. The Gallup survey found that the number of Americans who think the effects of global warming have already begun has dropped and, though the change was not statistically significant, so has the number of people who think warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime. On the other, the four environmental issues that incite the highest levels of public concern all have to do with water, which may be driven by the severe drought currently afflicting the western and southeastern United States, or recent reports about drinking water contamination in major cities around the country.

At any rate, it would be rash to argue that the media alone dictate the public’s perception of global warming. In a recent Q&A with Yale Environment 360, Elizabeth Kolbert, who writes about climate for The New Yorker, argued that it takes a “very, very palpable” event—such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005— to get both the press and the public engaged. (As an interesting aside, Kolbert also said that a lack of faith in science is a major obstacle – a point on which Tom Yulsman at the Center for Environmental Journalism disagrees.)

At his Prometheus blog, University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke, Jr. noted that public opinion has actually remained “remarkably stable” over the last decade. He suggested that:

Rather than seeing public opinion as a something to move as a prerequisite to action on certain climate policies, perhaps it is time for the experts to instead shape climate policies to fit the realities of public opinion. To paraphrase Walter Lippmann, the goal of politics is not to get everyone to think alike, but rather, to get people who think differently to act alike.

Pielke has a point. Gallup’s own “bottom line” is that the majority of Americans still believe global warming is real and that “it will be important to see whether the 2009 [survey] findings hold up in next year’s update of the annual environmental survey.”

Still, this year’s results should be a reminder to climate reporters that they can always improve the accuracy of their stories and more carefully choose frames that engage, rather than repel, the public.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.