Original spin distorts climate change poll

I was frustratingly far from an Internet connection when I heard the news that a Times/Populus poll had found that only 41% of Britons think that global warming is man-made. Clearly I’d missed something dramatic that had brought about such a radical change in how people see climate change (and this was before any UEA emails came out).

Bear in mind that the sort of numbers we’re used to seeing on this question are between 80-90% thinking that climate change/global warming is at least partly man-made (see for example MORI’s Tipping Point report). A drop of this magnitude sounded pretty fishy to me. So was it a shonky poll, or had opinions really changed that much?

Populus, very helpfully, provide a full break-down of the results on their website. If you have a look through the questions, there isn’t much controversial about the structure of the poll: it seems quite fairly set out, rather than having been rigged to lead respondents to answer one way or the other.

So if the poll itself is fine, what about the results? Here’s my own summary of the bit about perceptions of climate change/global warming:

  • Around 5 in 6 believe that climate change and global warming are taking place;
  • Only 23% disbelieve anthropogenic climate change;
  • Nearly 4 in 5 think that climate change is either very serious or the most serious problem we face.

This hardly matches the media reporting of the poll. I initially heard the coverage on the Radio 4 news (being a hip kind of guy), and am aware of write-ups in the Times, Mail, and Scotsman*. The Times article, headlined “Global warming is not our fault, say most voters in Times poll” is pretty typical of the tone they take.

Like the other articles, The Times report draws its conclusions from two questions. Firstly, it claims that less than half believe that human activity is to blame for global warming. This is true, but only if you exclude the 32% who agree that “There is a widespread theory that climate change is largely man-made but this has not yet been conclusively proved”. It’s pretty unsophisticated to assert that when someone says they haven’t seen a theory “conclusively proved”, they therefore don’t believe it.

Secondly, the reports suggest that people don’t see climate change as a serious problem, citing only 28% who think both that it’s happening, and that it’s “far and away the most serious problem we face as a country and internationally”. Again, this is true, but discounts another 51% who think it’s happening and is “a very serious problem, but other problems are more important”. While the reports mention this figure, they drop the word ‘very’ – either misreading their own poll, or misrepresenting it to fit their story.

What’s more, The Times omits what’s probably the most interesting part of the poll: the questions on possible measures that could be agreed to at Copenhagen. It tested six different actions, yielding the following net levels of support ((% supporting) – (% opposing)):

  • New building regulations for all new houses to meet the highest standards of insulation & make more use of renewal energy such as solar power, even if this increases the cost of new home: +76%
  • Setting limits on carbon dioxide emissions and making companies pay for their emissions, even if this results in higher prices for manufactured goods and energy: +43%
  • Much higher taxes on cars that use a lot of petrol and emit a lot of carbon dioxide: +39%
  • New taxes on air travel with the aim of reducing the number of flights people take: +17%
  • Increasing the cost of meat, because the farming of cows and pigs is a major contributor to methane emissions, a cause of climate change: -9%
  • Increasing the cost of motoring to encourage people to drive less: -9%

So a poll finds strong support for more regulation and higher taxes, and only weak opposition to increasing the cost of everyday expenses, but The Times chooses not to report that part. Instead, the findings are presented as more evidence of the failure of the Labour government and the weakness of Brown’s position in Copenhagen.

It’s pretty clear that a party political agenda determined what the Times wanted to write before they ran the poll; it’s hard to believe they would have kept schtum if the numbers had shown opposition to more regulation and green taxes.

The most irritating part of this is that – just as we saw with the IPPR report – the media coverage of these polls appears to be framed entirely by whoever writes the first press release or summary article. It didn’t take me long to look through the Populus file to find contradictory and far more interesting results than the Times reported. But all the coverage, including on the BBC, has followed the original spin, and missed findings with significant policy implications.

* Amusingly, the Scotsman appear to have got their headline wrong, reporting that “Two in five think climate change is ‘not man-made’”, when they presumably meant “Only two in five think climate change is ‘man-made’”.

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