Questionable poll results

(Admin note: This article was submitted by invitation and printed with permission of the author. In this article, Tom Harris discusses the questionable findings of a recent Public Policy Forum and Sustainable Prosperity poll on the relative opinions of the Canadian & American public on climate change. The poll received some attention in Canadian media outlets. The author questions whether that attention was properly focused, given the questionable nature of the pollster’s queries.)

Tom Harris, International Climate Science Coalition

A news release from the Public Policy Forum and Sustainable Prosperity last Wednesday began, “A poll released today shows that Canadians believe that climate change is happening and would be willing to pay for government policies that reverse or slow the damage.” They continued, “Belief in climate change among Canadians substantially outpaces belief in this phenomenon among residents of the United States.”

But that wasn’t really what the survey showed -respondents were actually asked about somewhat different topics.

This was not explained by most of those reporting on the poll. For example, the CBC wrote, “Far more Canadians than Americans believe climate change is real, according to a report produced by U.S. and Canadian think tanks . . . In Canada, 80 per cent believe in the science behind climate change . . . .”

Respondents were not asked if “climate change is real.” Neither were they asked if they “believe in the science behind climate change.”

Pollsters actually inquired: “From what you’ve read and heard, is there solid evidence that the average temperature on Earth has been getting warmer over the past four decades?”

If they had asked if respondents believed that climate change is happening, they should have received close to 100 per cent of people saying yes. Most people understand that, unless you live on the moon, climate always changes.

Because of the “four decade” period referenced in the survey, the obvious answer to the question about the Earth warming is “yes” (or at least “probably yes” – surface data is highly contaminated with urban heat sources and much of the data from cold rural stations was dropped out of the record in the early 1990s, exactly when global warming allegedly accelerated). Since satellite records started three decades ago (they indicate about ¼ degree C of overall warming in this period), flawed or not, the surface record is all we have to judge if warming has occurred over the past 40 years.

So, where were we four decades ago? The period around 1970 was the coldest in the last 80 years in the continental United States (and undoubtedly in Canada, although the record is very sparse) and fears of global cooling dominated. Fortunately, it probably has warmed somewhat since then, although the magnitude of this temperature rise is unclear.

Even those who do not support today’s climate scare acknowledge this warming, however. So, the poll results for this question have no significance.

Pollsters appear to have assumed respondents already agreed global warming can be “reduced” and so asked leading questions such as, “For each level of government that I mention please tell me if it has a great deal of responsibility, some responsibility or no responsibility for taking actions to reduce global warming.”

In the Key Findings Report discussing the survey results, one of the principle problems underlying this work becomes clear -the report authors treat “climate change” and “global warming” as if they are synonyms. They are not. Climate change includes warming and cooling, drought and flood and variations in all of the other factors that define our complex climate system.

Yet, in assessing trends in respondents’ answers to questions about the existence of global warming, the report asserted “Americans were almost twice as likely as Canadians to indicate a belief that climate change was not occurring . . .” and “respondents identifying themselves as supporters of the Federal Conservative party are significantly less likely to believe in the existence of climate change . . . .” Even the title of the report “Climate Compared: public opinion on climate change in the United States & Canada” is misleading considering that “climate change” was not referenced in any of the survey questions reported on.

Sustainable Prosperity’s Alex Wood asserted, “The numbers are clear, Canadians want smart climate change policy, and the evidence here is that they believe carbon pricing to be a central element of smart climate change policy.”

In fact, the implications of this poll are not clear at all since they did not ask the right questions and did not report properly on the questions that were asked. For example, why didn’t they simply ask:

“Do you believe that human emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are causing, or will, in the foreseeable future cause, dangerous global warming?”

It must be “dangerous” global warming that is being asked about. If it is not dangerous then, while the causes of global warming and other climate changes are interesting to scientists, it should not be a public policy issue at all.

Until a majority of Canadians are known to answer yes to this basic question, governments should ignore such surveys.

Instead, they should base policy on the reality that, while we are unable to reliably forecast climate, global warming or otherwise, a human-caused climatic crisis is not happening now and the geological record indicates that it was highly unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.

Tom Harris is executive director of the International Climate Science Coalition. (

The PPF/SP news release on the poll is available on the Public Policy Forum website.

28. February 2011 by Jason Hayes
Categories: Climate Change, Emissions, Environment, Marketplace Information, Policy | Tags: , , , , | 1 comment

One Comment

  1. I think you might enjoy the points I made in this climate poll-related interview on CJAD Radio in Montreal Monday morning.