US Public Opinion, Fueled by Skeptics, One Obstacle to Action on Climate Change

The 18th session of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is taking place this week in Qatar, and its modest agenda is a long way away from reaching a global agreement on reducing CO2 emissions. Any way forward needs the United States to sign on; it is the second-largest emitter after China.

But this issue has become so politically toxic in the US that in the 2010 mid-term elections, it ended political careers, causing many politicians to change their views or stop discussing it. Among the many factors that contributed to this is the role of climate skeptics.

Key Conclusions

  • The public debate over climate change makes it harder for US officials to agree in global forums about action on climate change. This is not the only spoiler, and there are large areas of disagreement at the multilateral level on how to tackle the problem. However, US public opinion is a complicating factor.
  • Skeptics exist in other countries (UK,  Australia, Norway) but they have more influence in the US because of a set of factors including the rise of ideological politics in the US; the interconnectedness of the narrative with special interests; and the willingness of major media outlets to publish skeptical voices to a degree not seen in other countries (in a study of 6 countries, US newspapers had by far the most in a few key measures).


The issue of climate change is one of the most politically charged in the US. A recent PBS story estimated 10-15 US politicians lost in the 2010 elections over the issue of climate change, including a six-term Republican in South Carolina. Some have noted that these races might have turned out that way regardless, but, according to the same PBS report, a warning bell was sounded, and many politicians stopped going on record about climate change; others adopted weaker stances with phrases such as, “We just don’t know enough.” Concerns about the economy in the pro-coal swing state of Ohio made climate change noticeably absent from the 2012 presidential debates for the first time since it was brought up initially in 1988.

Ninety-seven percent of working climate scientists agree that man-made (anthropogenic) climate change is happening, and how it came to pass that agreeing with them had political consequences is a complicated story with many factors, including the rise of ideological politics and the Tea Party; the role of special interests such as the fossil fuel industry; the downturn in the economy; and a changed information landscape that made for the proliferation of pseudo-science through the Internet and other media outlets.

Behind these factors is the role of the skeptics. In December 2011, Mark Boslough, a physicist and observer of climate change skeptics, wrote about his experience with them at an unusual climate change conference that was sufficiently credible enough to attract working scientists, but advertised that “non-conventional views on climate change” were welcome—and some fringe skeptics did show up. Boslough wrote that it is rare for scientists and skeptics to interact, and these were his observations:

“The main lesson I took away from the conference was this: there is no consistent contrarian science, and there is no defining contrarian ideology or motivation. Some are sincere. Others are angry at their lack of funding. Some appear to be envious of the IPCC scientists’ success, and others have found a niche that gets them attention they would not otherwise get. Only a few appear to be motivated by politics. No single label applies to them, and I found myself referring to them as “contrarians/skeptics/deniers/enablers/provocateurs/publicity-seekers.”

Boslough writes in this same post that he has “long complained about the lack of willingness of most contrarians to attend and present their arguments at mainstream scientific conferences,” and adds, “After three years of convening climate-related sessions at AGU [an international conference of scientists], I have yet to receive an abstract that argues against anthropogenic global warming.”

The diverse types of skeptics as described by Boslough, coupled with the complexity of climate change science itself has muddied the public’s perception of climate change to the advantage of vested interests. Skeptics appear alongside scientists in news reports, disputing data and projection claims, and even the concept of global warming itself. In 2005, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma called on a popular science fiction author with no scientific credentials to appear on a Senate expert panel on climate change. (Inhofe has called climate change  “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”) Because climate change science involves enormous amounts of data, it’s possible to cherry-pick evidence to support specious theories. One frequently cited poll from 2010 says that 66 percent of Americans incorrectly think that “there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening.”

In 2006, Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth seemed to end the public debate in the US over whether or not climate change was real. Evidence such as droughts, hurricanes, increasing temperatures, and melting arctic ice boosted the scientific claims. But a concerted effort was made by interest groups to change public opinion, and things shifted dramatically in 2009 after hacked emails from climate scientists cast a shadow on the much-reproduced “hockey stick” graph that was a key part of the 3rd Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report (independent investigations later showed no data manipulation had occurred). The additional revelation in 2010 of unverified data found in the 4th IPCC report gave some skeptics new ammunition to undermine climate change science and the IPCC.

Throughout, climate scientists in the US have found themselves increasingly in the position of having to explain—and defend—their findings. The blog RealClimate was launched in 2004 by working climate scientists for the “interested public and journalists” aimed at “a quick response to developing stories and provid[ing] the context sometimes  missing in mainstream commentary.” It was a watershed moment in an attempt to clarify the science. But the conversation around climate change has gotten significantly uglier, and reports are now common of US scientists experiencing death threats, intimidation and harassment in a routine way, unlike their counterparts in other countries. One just has to look at the comments on any online post about climate change to get a taste of what the level of discourse is like.

This can seem further complicated by the fact that the very nature of science involves alternative theories, questioning, and skepticism. Working climate scientists who are skeptics–and there are very few—are controversial in the scientific community (and some later admitted they were wrong). Their theories resonate throughout the communication landscape and are more likely than other types of skeptics to be quoted (politicians are also quoted frequently). Other more fringe skeptics also quote (or misquote) them to support their own agendas.

In 2011, a poll found the number of Americans who believe the planet is warming declined to 63% from 77% in 2006, though some new polls suggest that is has risen after Hurricane Sandy. Hurricane Sandy was a game changer, and some believe it played a role in sweeping skeptics out of office in the 2012 elections. Though it remains to be seen if the public’s renewed concerns over climate change are enough to translate into accepting cap-and-trade or other CO2 reduction plans that would be part of any future global agreement.

Jill Stoddard is the editor at the Global Observatory and the web editor for the International Peace Institute.

About the photo: A CNN report featuring climate skeptics, 2009.