Public Perceptions of Climate Change: Based on Fact or Artifact?

The difficulty for policymakers in understanding public perceptions of climate change is determining whether individuals’ responses are based on a well-developed understanding of scientific arguments or on a pseudo-opinion that is manufactured during the survey-taking process. Current research notes that respondents to general surveys lean towards the latter (Bishop 2002, 2008; Zaller 1992). As pollsters pose their queries, individuals are likely to begin to develop an attitude towards the issue at hand; respondents are using the information provided in the questions as an educational tool (Converse 1964, 1970; Krosnick 1991; Zaller and Feldman 1992; and Bishop 2002). As pollsters pose their queries, individuals are likely to begin to develop an attitude towards the issue at hand; respondents are using the information provided in the questions as an educational tool (Converse 1964, 1970; Krosnick 1991; Zaller and Feldman 1992; and Bishop 2002). My research adds to this literature by arguing that an individual’s perception of climate change, specifically, is an artifact derived from the words or concepts presented in the question and not an attitude developed over time about the issue.

To test this proposition, I used survey questions on climate change and global warming from Pew survey data from June 2006, January 2007, and April 2008. I combined all three surveys into one master dataset in order to account for variation across samples and time in order to conduct an inferential statistical model to estimate individuals’ responses controlling for partisanship, socio-economic status, and respondents’ ideology.


The data show that individuals construct their opinions on climate change based on heuristics which tend to bias their opinions on this issue. The most prominent heuristic used by individuals is partisanship. Thus, partisan preferences explain approximately 40% of individuals’ responses to this item, other things being equal. To understand how partisanship biases individuals’ attitudes on climate change, I have illustrated differences among partisan regarding whether there is solid evidence supporting global warming and the degree of seriousness of this issue. The above charts show significant differences between Democrats and Republicans on each question. Democrats overwhelmingly agree with both statements while Republicans remain skeptical.

So what can we expect from policymakers regarding this phenomenon? Namely that proponents, and opponents, of this policy have an opportunity to distort the facts surrounding the policy outcomes which deal with climate change because individuals’ views on this issue tend to be biased by their partisanship and political ideology.

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