x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

World in two minds about global warming, surveys find

Depending on whom you heed, concern about climate change is growing across the world, or, on the other hand, maybe we just don't care

Whom do they believe? Activists from the group Actionaid attend a news conference at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference.
Whom do they believe? Activists from the group Actionaid attend a news conference at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference.

LONDON// The headline in The New York Times spells it out in plain language: "World concerns about climate change dwindle - survey". The BBC headline also makes its point clear enough: "Climate change poll shows rising concerns".

As if trying to decide what and whom to believe about climate change were not difficult enough, two completely contradictory, Copenhagen-linked surveys this week appear to demonstrate that the majority of us are thinking totally opposite things at exactly the same time. The survey quoted by The New York Times this week involved more than 27,000 people in 54 countries across the globe. It showed that only 37 per cent of us were "very concerned" about global warming, down from 41 per cent the last time the poll was conducted two years ago.

Meanwhile, the BBC poll, involving 24,000 people in 23 countries, showed that 64 per cent of us now regard climate change as a "very serious" problem - a progressive increase from 44 per cent since the poll was first conducted a decade ago. Of course, there have always been lies and opinion polls, but these surveys seem to suggest that, either, almost two-thirds of us are not really bothered by the threat of global warming or, alternatively, that almost two-thirds of us are petrified by it.

Just to complicate things further, both polls agree that concern about climate change has fallen in the US, but by startlingly different degrees. The BBC poll reckons that 45 per cent of people in the US still regard the issue as very serious, the other survey says that only 25 per cent of Americans are now "very concerned" about it. And then in China, the world's greatest CO2 emitter, the "very serious" camp has fallen to 57 per cent according to the BBC, while The Times cites the other survey as saying that the "very concerned" group there has actually increased, but only to 36 per cent.

"These discrepancies are difficult to explain," admitted a London-based pollster, who asked not be named. "The differences could rest in the questions, how they were framed and the method used to ask them. "For example, do you respond differently if you are asked if you are very concerned about a problem, compared to how you would respond if you are asked whether or not you think a problem is very serious?

"Superficially, though, the conclusions of the two surveys do appear diametrically opposed. Certainly, the differences seem way outside the margin of errors - normally three per cent or so - that are common to all such samples." Richard Sclove, a global warming activist in the US and adviser to another worldwide poll on climate change earlier this year (whose results were similarly contradicted by yet another survey in the US), believes there is a reason why so many polls on climate change get it "wrong" - in his opinion - by underestimating the public's fears.

"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 dinner time," he says. "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."

On the other side of the fence is Lord Monckton, a former policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher and an outspoken sceptic on global warming. "Every opinion poll - even those conducted by the bed-wetters themselves - shows that global public opinion is cooling as fast as the global climate," he says. "In one recent survey, global warming came at the very bottom of a list of political and environmental concerns, immediately behind the need to clean up dog poop on the streets. Why? Because dog poop is a real environmental problem and 'global warming' is not."

Oliver Martin, the director of global development for the Canada-based polling company GlobeScan, which conducted the survey for the BBC, said that its poll was "conducted to the highest professional standards ... and we are confident, based on our sampling and methodologies, that our data effectively represents respondents' views". He added: "I can point out that our poll is conducted via telephone and face-to-face interviews, with the exception of Japan, where it was online. The poll (in The Times) you quote was conducted via online interviews.

"Online polling is not representative of a country's national population. Telephone and face-to-face methodologies are considered to be representative." Nielsen, the US polling company that conducted the research, in conjunction with Oxford University, quoted in The Times, did not respond to The National's request for a comment. Perhaps only Yogi Berra, the New York Yankees' legendary catcher, has the subtle grasp of figures necessary to understand the mathematics behind the apparently contradictory results. It was he, after all, who described his sport as "90 per cent mental - the other half is physical".

dsapsted@thenational.ae