Studies Show When Government Is Skeptical About Climate Change, People Listen

Before winning a minority government in 2006, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to get to the bottom of the climate change file and handle the issue properly. Neither he, nor most members of his party, believed that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human activities were causing a climate crisis. Emission reduction regulations were clearly not necessary, they said.

In a 2002 fundraising letter for the now-defunct Canadian Alliance, Harper called the UN climate process “a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations.”

Somewhere along the road to power, everything changed. Now, like the Chretien and Martin Liberal governments before them, the Conservatives officially support UN negotiations to “stop dangerous climate change.”

In a futile attempt to mollify their opponents, they now make GHG reduction pledges they have no chance, and, undoubtedly no intention, of keeping. They dump billions of dollars into projects that will do nothing to change the climate no matter how one interprets the science, since the UN treaty now being created includes an out clause for developing nations. These nations are the source of most of today’s emissions. The “first and overriding priorities” for developing countries, the base document asserts, are “economic and social development and poverty eradication” -- not GHG reduction.

So why does the Harper government support a process they so vehemently opposed before? The answer is simple: they are following the common perception that Canadians want them to work with the UN on climate change mitigation.

Last month’s Forum Research poll concluded that a majority of Canadians “believe the earth’s climate is changing,” “blame it on human activities,” and do not think “the federal government is doing its bit to combat climate change.”

Other polls show the same, although Canadians are never asked whether they think we are causing climate change that would in any way be dangerous. Regardless, government strategists have concluded they must play along with the climate scare until public opinion appears to have changed.

Government cannot lead public opinion, they assume. But recent studies show they are wrong.

In “Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S.,” published in the journal Climatic Change, researchers at Drexel University, McGill University, and Ohio State University showed that the stated positions of politicians and other “elites” in society is the major factor driving public opinion.

The analysis, based on an examination of 74 separate surveys over a nine-year period, supported the 2009 conclusion of Harvard University’s Susan McDonald:

When elites have consensus, the public follows suit and the issue becomes mainstreamed. When elites disagree, polarization occurs, and citizens rely on other indicators … to make up their minds.

The Drexel/McGill/Ohio State study showed that when prominent Republicans worked with the Democrats in support of the dangerous global warming hypothesis, the public was far more supportive of this position.

However, after the Republicans split with the Democrats on climate change in 2008, there was a sudden drop in the fraction of the public who “worried a great deal” about climate.