Polls Apart

One of our major gripes with Environmentalism concerns the claims made by its adherents that it is some sort of popular, grass-roots movement. Time and again, polls suggest otherwise. And yet these polls are rarely, if ever, reported in terms of the undemocratic nature of Environmentalism as it is foisted upon reluctant electorates. Rather, they are presented as evidence that the public are unthinking, selfish morons brainwashed by scheming ‘deniers’.

Of course, everybody – ourselves included – will jump on a poll that can be used to support their own position. Which is why Green activist and winner of the Royal Society’s prestigious prize for popular science (fiction), Mark Lynas, picked up on last week’s ICM/Guardian poll. Writing in Comment is Free, he suggests that, in contrast to previous polls, it

shows that a clear majority favours government action on the environment v the economy, while an even larger majority supports the introduction of green taxes. 

And it does, if you believe that the answers to such leading questions as ‘Generally speaking would you support or oppose the introduction of green taxes, designed to discourage things that are harmful to the environment?’ tell you anything at all about public opinion.

But, his main point is that the poll dispels the myth that concern about climate change is a luxury of the middle-classes:

perhaps the most fascinating result of all emerges from the small print of the different social classes of the ICM survey respondents. Environmentalists are constantly accused of being middle-class lifestyle faddists, who don’t understand the day-to-day financial pressures faced by “ordinary” working people. But the number of people who thought that environment should be the government’s priority rather than the economy was substantially higher (56%) among the lower income, less well-educated DE demographic than among the better-off ABs (47%). Lower-income social groups also have a much lighter environmental footprint overall: only 42% of DEs took a foreign holiday over the last three years, whilst 77% of ABs did. Better-off people also own more cars, as you might expect – only 5% of DEs have three or more cars, whilst 15% of ABs do. 

So perhaps anti-environmental class warriors like the editors of Spiked need to find a new cause to champion. The working-class people who they claim “can’t afford to be concerned about climate change” actually care more about the future of the planet than the rich – and are doing a lot less damage to boot. So next time you hear someone defending motorway expansion or cheap flights on behalf of the British poor, ask yourself the question: whose side are they really on?

Environmentalism might not be popular, you see, but at least it’s equally unpopular across society. Lynas’s view of the “working-class people” has more to do with the idea of the Noble Savage than solidarity with those at the bottom of the social pile. In his world, poverty is something to aspire to rather than alleviate. It’s as if they cause ‘a lot less damage’ as a result of a desire to live in harmony with nature rather than the fact that they are, by definition, less able to afford the luxury of foreign holidays and cars.

Not that we should be surprised. After all, this is the same Mark Lynas who believes that alleviating poverty should be put on hold until the planet has been saved:

The struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for the survival of an intact and functioning biosphere 

Moreover, Lynas’s attention to the ‘small print’ was not as attentive as it could have been. Otherwise he could not have reached the conclusion that he did. Yes, the responses of DE and AB respondents are comparable across the survey, but the demographics of the two groups suggest that there are good reasons for that that have little to do with social class per se. For example, 50% of the DEs were retired, as opposed to 24% for ABs. Only 18% of DEs were working full time, as opposed to 56% for ABs. And 67% of DEs were not working at all (ABs = 30%). In other words, a much higher proportion of DE respondents are unlikely to be affected by environmental tax hikes.

Lynas’s true sentiments about the masses are evident in his reply to commenters who dare to challenge his latest rant against climate change ‘deniers’:

Well I have to say that most of the comments this piece (and many of my others) has attracted simply prove my rather depressing conclusion that a lot of probably very decent people have swallowed the line pumped out by industry-funded US conservative think tanks. Almost ever denialist argument I’ve ever seen first made an appearance courtesy of them – there’s very little in the ‘denialisophere’ (apologies) which is in any way original. 

None of the citations of course mention the peer-reviewed literature, where there isn’t any discussion of whether anthropogenic global warming is real or not, because all the systematic data shows that it is. But it’s pointless to go on digging trenches – and personally I’ve got better things to do than engage with entirely close-minded people. This is a political debate, not a scientific one, and has been for a long time.

Those ‘very decent’ yet ‘entirely closed-minded’ members of the public get the blame whenever polls suggest that they are not giving environmental issues the attention they should be. For example, we reported on last year’s Ipsos Mori’s poll, which found that the majority of people are not convinced that the scientific argument for action on climate change is clear-cut. Report author Phil Downing described the results as ‘disturbing’ and ‘frightening’:

Given the actual consensus and the reality if the situation, it is a particularly disturbing statistic and does suggest one or two things. Firstly the impact of contrarian and negative messages, for example, Channel 4’s great Global Warming Swindle are having an impact. Secondly, if the public is ambivalent, and you have a disconnect between what you believe on the one hand, and how you act on the other. The easiest thing is to change what you believe, rather than how you act. 

We thought these sounded more like the words of an opinion former than an opinion pollster.

A couple of weeks ago, Ipsos Mori produced another report along similar lines, which was reported exclusively by the Observer newspaper:

The majority of the British public is still not convinced that climate change is caused by humans – and many others believe scientists are exaggerating the problem 

And whose fault is that?

There is growing concern that an economic depression and rising fuel and food prices are denting public interest in environmental issues. Some environmentalists blame the public’s doubts on last year’s Channel 4 documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle, and on recent books, including one by Lord Lawson, the former Chancellor, that question the consensus on climate change. 

We spoke to Downing, on the phone and by email. He told us that, when he used words like ‘frightening’ or ‘disturbing’ after last year’s poll, he was speaking from the perspective of the government who had commissioned it. He also said that any mention of the Swindle and Lord Lawson in the Observer article did not come from him. And anyway, he only mentioned it last year because several poll respondents cited the Swindle when talking about their doubts over the government line.

Phil Downing: [W]hen we released the report last year, we did comment that we had started to note in purely qualitative terms that people were making reference to that programme, or had picked up on some of the secondary press […] So we were saying this might be playing a role because this was the first time we were picking it up. But we see it as more of a correlation in time rather than a causation. We have no evidence of a direct link between The Great Global Warming Swindle, or any other programme for that matter, and what is driving people’s views […] We have no quantative data on the extent to which it is driving it. No one has commissioned research to gauge the impact of The Great Global Warming Swindle or An Inconvenient Truth and how the public are making sense of these different messages. 

Regardless of who made that argument in which year, however, it boils down to the point that it is democracy itself – a free press, debate, and the need to win legitimacy for political ideas by contest – that has beset the environmental movement’s intentions. Never mind the vast resources available to the Greens to push their own agenda. The fact is that the Observer can count on the fingers of two fingers the number of public challenges to environmental orthodoxy, yet Environmentalism is pushed down our throats from nearly every Government department, local authority, NGO and charity, every current affairs program on every TV channel, in every school, and, according to this article in the Shields Gazette, by Downing himself:

Keynote speaker Phil Downing, head of environmental research for Ipsos Mori, will be encouraging councils to ‘think global’ but ‘act local’ and use the regional advice and support available to inspire their communities to help tackle climate change. 

So the question is whether Phil Downing and Ipsos Mori are activists or researchers, opinion pollsters or opinion-formers. We doubt that were he taking such a side on a party-political issue he would be allowed by his employers to make such statements. It suggests that environmental orthodoxy has been established within a certain influential strata of society, who believe it to be ‘above’ politics, as though environmentalism weren’t a political ideology.

Downing told us that the line between pollster and activist is one that he is careful not to cross. And that the Shields Gazette got it wrong – he was there simply to deliver an analysis of public opinion on climate change. If anyone out there happened to attend the event, we’d love to hear from you.

Climate Resistance: Do you have strict guidelines at Ipsos Mori about not crossing that line? 

PD: Yes, it’s something that is strictly frowned upon, if you go into something contributing to one side of a debate and not the other […] there are stringent quality control procedures in place to ensure impartiality at Ipsos MORI – this extends both to the way the questions are asked as well as any material we release into the public domain. A specific and in-house team is required to sign off survey materials. As well as the interpretative text we have published the results in full on the website.

Readers can make up their own minds as to whether Ipsos Mori, in blaming a contrarian tv documentary for the public’s divergence from the government line while failing to consider the possibility that the government’s line just isn’t very convincing, should perhaps have another look at their guidelines.

CR: Is it not more likely that the reticence of the public to take up the governmental line on climate change is the result of an unconvincing governmental message? 

PD: Well, you’re more than welcome to commission a poll from us.

CR: What would that cost?

PD: Depends. If you’re looking at 1000 people, nationally representative, you’re looking at something like £700-1000 per question.

You could almost understand – if not excuse – the failure to consider the strikingly obvious if, say, the government had commissioned it, because, apparently, you get what you pay for with these things. But, intriguingly, the latest poll was not actually commissioned by anybody. Downing said that Ipsos Mori conducted it off their own backs to shed light on the complexity of the public’s attitudes and beliefs towards climate change. And yet, all it has achieved is to restate the fact that the public is ambivalent, and spawn newspaper articles that seek simplistic excuses for that finding.

To a large extent, there’s little point complaining. Everybody knows that polls are not to be taken seriously; that they are frequently spectacularly wrong; that busy people are keen to fob pollsters off with the answer that is expected of them, etc etc. And, to repeat, we are as guilty as anybody of jumping on poll results when it suits us. When push comes to shove, there’s only one type of poll that counts, and that’s the type that is conducted at the polling booths. And elections demonstrate quite clearly how unpopular Environmentalism is with the masses. The Green Party has no MPs in the UK Parliament, and the Green contingent of MEPs voted into seats in the European Parliament comprise just 5% (and the European elections have a notoriously low turn-out).

But even more telling is the spectacular decline in the number of people actually bothering to vote:

Funny how turn-out plummets as awareness of the ‘most pressing challenge of our time’ goes through the roof.

Forget the opinion polls. Contrary to the claims of Environmentalists, few people have really bought into their world-view. If anything, most people are slightly irritated by it. Environmentalism persists only because few people object vehemently to it, and because it’s as good as impossible to vote against it.

56 Per Cent of You Are STUPID (Or is it Just Ipsos MORI?)

Ipsos Mori are about to publish some research they’ve done, Tipping Point Or Turning Point? Social Marketing & Climate Change

Phil Downing, head of environmental research at the company, and one of the report’s authors appeared on yesterday’s Today program on BBC Radio 4 to discuss the findings.

I think there are two key headlines that we’ve found. The first is that concern about climate change on the whole is rising. And we find that very few people, only a very small minority, actually reject out of hand the idea that it is actually changing the climate, that humans have at least some part to play in that. 

So what’s the problem?

The more disturbing trend is there’s still undecided or a large proportion who are ambivalent about the issue. And we see this filtering through to the number who say that they’re not convinced that scientists can successfully model the climate. More frighteningly still that they believe the scientific debate is still raging, err, and the jury is still out. 

But you don’t need to be a global warming denialist, or even a sceptic to be part of the 56% of us who are unconvinced of science’s current ability to successfully model the climate. Take for example, Kevin E. Trenberth’s recent article on Nature’s Climate Feedback blog:

There is no estimate, even probabilistically, as to the likelihood of any emissions scenario and no best guess. … Even if there were, the projections are based on model results that provide differences of the future climate relative to that today. None of the models used byIPCC are initialized to the observed state and none of the climate states in the models correspond even remotely to the current observed climate. In particular, the state of the oceans, sea ice, and soil moisture has no relationship to the observed state at any recent time in any of theIPCC models. 

And Trenberth is no ‘sceptic’. He maintains that global warming is happening, and humans are causing it. He concludes,

… the science is not done because we do not have reliable or regional predictions of climate. But we need them. Indeed it is an imperative! So the science is just beginning. Beginning, that is, to face up to the challenge of building a climate information system that tracks the current climate and the agents of change, that initializes models and makes predictions, and that provides useful climate information on many time scales regionally and tailored to many sectoral needs. 

Downing’s research apparently fails to accommodate the complex and nuanced debate that evidently does exist. Furthermore, it seems that the public are far more sophisticated than he gives them credit for. Worse still, however, it is his own ignorance of the science, the debate, and his underestimation of the public that causes him to be ‘disturbed’ and ‘frightened’. He then needs to invent reasons as to why the public don’t see things the way he wants them to:

Given the actual consensus and the reality if the situation, it is a particularly disturbing statistic and does suggest one or two things. Firstly the impact of contrarian and negative messages, for example, Channel 4’s great Global Warming Swindle are having an impact. Secondly, if the public is ambivalent, and you have a disconnect between what you believe on the one hand, and how you act on the other. The easiest thing is to change what you believe, rather than how you act. 

If Ipsos Mori want to become opinion formers rather opinion pollsters, they’ll need to be rather more persuasive than that. This ‘research’ only reveals the public opinion pollsters’ low opinion of the public.