What are they waiting for?

In the first post of this year, I go back to a previous post, the first post in a series on global warming politics, more specifically on the Conversation article “Why some people still think climate change isn’t real” by David Hall, so I can wrap up that series.

Hall ends that Conversation article as follows:

What will make a difference is the power of the people – through regulation, divestment, consumer choice and public protest. Public surveys emphasise that, throughout the world, deniers are in the minority. The worried majority doesn’t need to win over everyone in order to win on climate change.

That is quite a inspirational paragraph to end his article with. Basically, the good guys (the convinced) are in the majority, the bad guys (the deniers) are in the minority and it will be the good guys who will make the difference.

Then I don’t see the problem that he tried to tackle in that article. If it is really true that the power of the people makes a difference and the worried ones are in the majority, then what are they waiting for? If the majority is worried and they are using their power of consumer choice and are willing to be regulated, then why didn’t this happened before?

Hall substantiated his we-are-in-the-majority claim by linking to a 2019 PEW research article. The PEW researchers concluded among others that 1) Majorities in most surveyed countries say global climate change is a major threat to their nation and 2) substantial shares see climate change as a minor threat or not a threat at all.

These are the results per country that they base the conclusions on:

pew: climate change major threat vs not a threat

Indeed, in most countries there are majorities of those who say global warming is a major threat, as conclusion 1 stated.

That second conclusion is a bit odd. A 4 – 21% (median: 9%) doesn’t seem substantial to me. PEW adds those who believe that climate change is a minor threat with those who believe that it is not a threat at all… This justifies the “substantial part” of the statement. A 10 – 21% (median: 29%) group is indeed substantial, but it is comparing apples with oranges. This has to do with what they are counting, but more about that later in the post.

This post is not about analyzing the survey, it is to check what was found and how Hall used it. Unless Hall considers those “who believe that climate change is not a major threat” as being “deniers”, he probably meant those who believe that climate change is a threat (whether major or minor) are in the majority, not only those who believe it is a major threat.

When I recreate the graph as a stacked percent bar graph and compare those who stated that climate change is a threat (major or minor) against those who stated that it is not a threat, then I get this:

pew: climate change (major and minor) threat vs not a threat

That is a stiff majority in all surveyed countries believing that climate change is a threat to their country. What if those who believe that climate change is a threat would live according to that belief? That would indeed make quite a difference, but … that is obviously not what happens.

What is the catch?

Well, the result of the survey is not necessarily meaningful in the way Hall is using it.

Let me explain that. The survey asked people how they evaluate eight potential threats for their country:

  1. global climate change
  2. ISIS
  3. cyberattack by other countries
  4. North Korea’s nuclear program
  5. global economy
  6. power and influence of US
  7. power and influence of Russia
  8. power and influence of China

The respondents then got asked whether they believe it is a major threat, a minor threat or not a threat at all. The top threat in this case means: the issue that is mentioned most as a major threat to the country (that’s why conclusion 1 only counted major threats and why conclusion 2 was made by lumping together those who believe that climate change is a “minor threat” and those who don’t see it”not as a threat at all”).

The conclusion that “majorities in most surveyed countries say global climate change is a major threat to their nation” seems contradictory to surveys where climate change is ranked at the bottom of the list.

It depends on how the survey is conducted. Notice what is NOT being asked: to rank threats in order of importance. These are not open questions questioning what people’s top threats are. Also, no things related to the daily life of the people are asked.

If such questions would be asked, then things like:

  • Unemployment
  • The economic situation
  • Rising prices
  • Government debt
  • Crime
  • Social security
  • Immigration
  • Taxes
  • Pensions
  • Education
  • Housing

will surely be among the top worries. These are the things that keeps people awake at night. When such questions are asked, then climate change is bound to end up somewhere at the bottom of the list…

How certain can we be that those who responded that they considered climate change a (major or minor) threat want to act “through regulation, divestment, consumer choice and public protest”? Hall seems to be very sure that the worried majority will act as he sees fit, but that might not be the case. Not all respondents might agree with Hall’s vision. Climate change is a broad term and can mean different things to different people. Someone having a neutral concept of climate change might state that he believes that climate change is a major threat to his country, but that does not necessarily mean that he will be ready to do the things that Hall is proposing.

Another issue is that even those who believe in (catastrophic) anthropogenic climate change might not be enthusiastic when it comes to Hall’s proposed solutions for other reasons. I recently read an interesting article in the Washington Post on a 2016 paper by Matthew Hornsey published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Hornsey did a meta-analysis of the literature and its main conclusion is that political affiliations, worldviews and values are the most significant predictors of a person’s beliefs about climate change (which I think is true). There was another very interesting find that even those with strong beliefs on climate change are not necessarily willing to make sacrifices (my emphasis):

All of that said, the analysis also points out that people who believe in climate change are not always quick to support every climate-friendly policy that’s proposed. In general, the study’s authors note, the link between belief in climate change and support for a policy grows weaker the more specific and concrete the type of policy support being measured. For instance, people who believe in climate change are highly likely to say, generally, that they support policies that prioritize the environment over the economy. But it’s less likely that they will specifically support a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme.

Later in the article: (my emphasis):

And it may also be that many people with strong beliefs about climate change are still not inclined to support policies that may come at a personal cost to them. “There is a chunk of people who believe in climate change and want something done about it, but in a similar way that they want something done about third world poverty,” Hornsey said. “It’s something that ‘the world’ should deal with, but not necessarily in a way that requires personal sacrifice.”

It is one thing to tell pollsters that one believes that climate change is a threat, it is another to actually make a sacrifice. Likewise, it is one thing for Hall to say that those who are worried are in the majority, but it is another to have a majority that actually makes the difference…


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