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Last updated on April 25, 2014 at 1:22 EDT

What Drives Public Opinion On Climate Change?

February 6, 2012

New study says political mobilization by elites and advocacy groups is driving factor in influencing concern about climate change

Public concern about climate change has varied widely over the past few decades. For example, Gallup has been polling individuals about how much they personally worry about climate change. In 2004, 26 percent of the respondents stated that they worried “a great deal.” By 2007, this proportion had risen to 41 percent. But by 2010, this fraction dropped to 28 percent. Why?

In a new study published in the Springer journal Climatic Change, Robert Brulle from Drexel University in Philadelphia, USA, and colleagues set out to identify the informational, cultural and political processes that influence public concern about climate change.

The researchers reveal that the driving factor that most influences public opinion on climate change is the mobilizing efforts of advocacy groups and elites. The study conducted an empirical analysis of the factors affecting U.S. public concern about the threat of climate change between January 2002 and December 2010. The five factors that were examined were extreme weather events, public access to accurate scientific information, media coverage, elite cues and movement/countermovement advocacy.

The study revealed that, while media coverage exerts an important influence, this coverage is itself largely a function of elite cues and economic factors. Weather extremes have no effect on aggregate public opinion, and providing scientific information to the public on climate change has a minimal effect. The implication would seem to be that information-based science advocacy has had only a minor effect on public concern, while political mobilization by elites and advocacy groups is critical in influencing climate change concern.

According to Brulle, “Public opinion regarding climate change is likely to remain divided as long as the political elites send out conflicting messages on this issue.”

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