Public opinion about the origins and seriousness of climate change began to shift before the emergence of the “Climategate” scandal in 2009. These trend lines, tracked by the Gallup Organization, show the shift beginning in 2007, even before the Obama Administration began its effort to adopt cap-and-trade. The emails hacked from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Center were not revealed until late 2009, just before the Copenhagen Conference began on December 7. The gray vertical lines represent the succession of reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) over the years. The pink line at the far right represents the emergence of Climategate.
The top graph plots responses to the question: “Thinking about what is said in the news, in your view is the seriousness of global warming generally exaggerated, generally correct, or is it generally underestimated?” The percent that say the seriousness has been exaggerated rose from 32 percent to nearly 50 percent in a trend that began in 2007.
Graph 2 asks the question, “Do you think that global warming will pose a serious threat to you or your way of life in your lifetime?” The percentage who said “Yes” had risen to 44 percent in 2008 but then subsided back to 30 percent, where it was a decade ago.
Graph 3 asks whether the participant believe that “’most scientists believe that global warming is occurring, most scientists believe that global warming is NOT occurring, or most scientists are unsure about whether global warming is occurring or not?” Those who think that scientists believe it is occurring rose above 60 percent in 2008 but quickly plummeted back to 50 percent thereafter.
Graph 4 asks whether the whether the participant believes the effects of global warming will occur “within a few years (or has already begun),” “within the person’s lifetime,” or “never.” The exchange has occurred between those who believe the effects are eminent and those who place it over their lifetime. In this case, the reversal seems to have been at least partially precipitated by Climategate.
Finally, the most dramatic change has occurred between those who believe warming may be caused by human activities and those who attribute it to natural causes. Respondents blamed human activities by almost 2-to-1 in 2007 but the trend reversed dramatically and the two views have now almost pulled even. Once again, the trend began in 2008, although it has probably been accelerated by Climategate.
This shift in public sentiment has obviously been affected by Climategate but was already in motion before the scandal emerged. It has probably been driven by three factors: 1) the emergence of global warming as prime national concern instead of a fringe issue; 2) the realization that there were dissenting voices in the scientific community; and 3) the recognition of the tremendous economic sacrifices that would be required to deal with the problem. The last has probably had the biggest impact.