Ideology, Public Opinion, Hurricanes and Global Warming

October 25th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

According to a CNN/Gallup poll released today, a majority of Americans, and a majority of both Republicans and Democrats, “believe that global warming has been at least a minor cause of the number and strength of hurricanes in recent years.” The poll asked, “Thinking about the increase in the number and strength of hurricanes in recent years, do you think global warming has been a major cause, a minor cause, or not a cause of the increase in hurricanes?”

Specifically, the poll found that 60% of respondents believe that global warming was either a major or minor cause of “the increase in hurricanes,” — 53% of Republicans, 60% of Independents and 82% of Democrats. Clearly, ideology shapes how one views the science.

Interestingly, 36% of respondents think that global warming is a “major cause”, 25% of Republicans, 34% of Independents, and 48% of Democrats. On the flip side, 30% of respondents to the poll believe that global warming was “not a cause,” 44% Republicans, 34% Independents and 12% Democrats. Let’s assume that the most up-to-date state of the science is presented in the recent work of Emanuel and Webster et al. (and, yes, yes, I know that there are responses to these papers in the pipeline, but they are not published yet, and this poll was taken just recently, for a full assessment of the current state of the literature see this paper (PDF)). These works are suggestive that global warming has had at best, only a minor influence on the storms of the Atlantic in recent years (i.e., no one has asserted effects on frequency, and Emanuel claims that an intensity signal at landfall has not been seen, and Webster et al. claim that attribution has not yet been achieved). As Kerry Emanuel, who has asserted that a global warming signal exists in the data on hurricane intensity, notes, “There has been a large upswing in the frequency of Atlantic hurricanes, beginning in 1995. This is owing to natural cycles in North Atlantic climate that we have observed for many decades and, to the best of our ability to discern, has nothing obvious to do with global warming.”

So it is fair to conclude that 66% of respondents to this poll misunderstand the science as reflected in the recent peer reviewed literature – that is, the 36% who assert a that global warming has been a “major cause” and the 30% who assert that global warming is “not a cause.” The ones whose views are consistent with the most recent science on this subject are the 29% who asserted a “minor cause” – 28% Republican, 26% Independent and 34% Democrat.

There numbers raise some interesting questions about the positions that scientists take in public on the relationship of global warming and hurricanes. Some statements by prominent scientists go well beyond what the peer reviewed literature can support; some vehemently assert no linkage, while others claim that global warming is a major factor. With scientists themselves going to extremes, it is no wonder that the public has misunderstandings. In this environment of dueling experts we should expect that the public tends to align their views of science in ways fit best with their ideological predispositions.

Because slightly more people appear to overstate the linkage than underplay it – at least as indicated in this poll – it is logical for those with an interest in the public understanding of science to devote just as much (or slightly more) attention to reigning in some of the exaggerations of the science as to correcting those who underplay the issue. But such balanced perspectives are few and far between. Nuanced messages about the complexities and realities are lost in the fray. It is “global warming: yes or no” with little room for other perspectives.

To be fair, it may be that some the scientists who are claiming no linkage or a strong linkage are simply arguing in public about what they expect future research will show, perhaps motivated a bit by ego considerations. But of course, science is (usually) not decided in the media or by public opinion, but rather on the pages of peer reviewed journals, and these scientists surely know this. So perhaps there are other motivations here.

Could it be that the views of many scientists about the science of hurricanes and climate change are colored by their own political preferences, just like those of the public? Specifically, perhaps those scientists who are asserting loudly in public that global warming is “not a cause” are focusing their message on the 48% of Democrats who believe that global warming is a “major cause.” And similarly, perhaps those scientists who are asserting a “major cause” are focusing their attention on the 44% of Republicans who think that global warming is “not a cause.” Could it be that some scientists, and even professional societies, show little concern about public misunderstandings of science when they are politically convenient, and work to correct them only when the opposite is true? Is concern among scientists about the public misunderstanding of science selective? Shocking if true.

Of course, the entire debate about global warming and hurricanes is a huge distraction from what needs to be done in a practical sense to better prepare for hurricanes and to mitigate climate change. They are two separate problems. (Before you write in, please consider the following homework assignment: Assume that human-caused greenhouse gases are cut by 80% on Jan 1, 2006, describe the effects on hurricane damages in 2050. This is not to diminish GHG reductions, but to make the point that they are not a tool of hurricane policy.) But the debate sure makes for an interesting new playing field for playing out our left-right political battles. It’s just too bad that it is politicizing the scientific enterprise in the process.

For further reading:

Pielke, Jr., R.A. and D. Sarewitz, 2005. Managing the next disaster, Los Angeles Times, September 23. (PDF)

Pielke, Jr., R. A., C. Landsea, M. Mayfield, J. Laver and R. Pasch, 2005 (in press). Hurricanes and global warming, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, December. (PDF)

18 Responses to “Ideology, Public Opinion, Hurricanes and Global Warming”

  1. Daniel Collins Says:

    “Clearly, ideology shapes how one views the science.”
    While I think the conclusion is right, for reasons you give below among others, the data preceding this statement illustrates correlation not causation.

    “…66% of respondents to this poll misunderstand the science…”
    I think it is more accurate to say “…atleast 66%…”, because you cannot know that people got the right answer exclusively because of accurate knowledge.

    Segway to the homework… How would those who link global warming to increases in hurricanes respond to the question: “Should we curb global warming in an effort to reduce hurricane damage?” Action is another lense through which political, economic and social preferences are refracted.

    So should we try to curb climate change in an effort to reduce hurricane damage? I don’t think hurricane damage would be dominated by climate change within 50 years – one should focus most effort on susceptability. But that’s not the whole story. First up, planning only for the next 50 years, while politically amenable, is beneath our abilities. Second, I am thus far unconvinced one way or the other about the significance that climate change-induced increases in hurricane number/intensity has on societal damage. How can we test that “the effects of such changes are significant in the context of inexorable growth in population and property at risk” (BAMS draft), given that “there are far too few hurricane landfalls to be able to discern any trend” (Emanual’s website)? How do we manage this uncertainty and our inability to know?

    But irrespective of the policy options and scientific research, “public misunderstandings of science” are damning indictments of those of us who work on the science.

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  3. Josh Says:

    It’s also worth considering that poll respondents are using “major effect” as a proxy for their own confidence that global warming plays a role in hurricanes, rather than a measure of the degree to which global warming actually influences hurricanes.

    In other words, respondents may be answering a slightly different question than you are interpretting.

    I expect that those two issues are hard to separate in public polling. I’ve looked at the question, and you are correct in your interpretation of the question asked, I just wonder if respondents realize what question they were answering.

    One also has to ask what frame of reference people are putting “major” and “minor” into, and climate scientists and the public may mean different things. It could be that people mean the impact is more major than they used to think.

    In short, I think you’re too quick to see people overselling global warming and its impact on hurricanes.

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  5. OnTheInside Says:

    It’s unfortunate Gallup lumped together frequency with intensity. As there’s no evidence of an increase in frequency, anyone who answered global warming was a major or minor cause of increases “in the number and strength”, was technically wrong.

    If the question was just about intensity, given the range of credible scientific perspectives on intensity, any of the three responses would be defensible. Although based on what has been published (to date), I would say “not a cause” would be more scientifically suspect than “major cause.” My interpretation of the state of understanding would lead me to answer “minor cause.”

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  7. OnTheInside Says:

    One additional point– I not sure it’s reasonable to expect that the public would:
    (1) Have an appreciation for the differences between frequency and intensity.
    (2) Given a poll that lumps the two concepts together, be sophisticated enough to answer “no effect” based on (1)

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  9. Paul dougherty Says:

    The poll is informative in that it shows that what was an intellectual argument between conservative think tanks and envionmental activists (with science on the sidelines) has worked its way into the public at large. As usual that opinion is sadly misinformed.

    The point of this argument is far more important than the way it is being treated. If it is widely accepted that the big damage from hurricanes is due to societal rather than climate changes, then somrthing can be done. These range from building restrictions to tax policy and an awareness that the insurance costs in high risk areas are being socialized to all of us through insurance rates and government relief costs. Get this perspective in people’s heads and actions can be taken.

    On the other hand if global warming is the focus,(which cannot be alleviated for a long time), then nothing practical will be done. We will have the usual vitriol amidst cries of woe is us and judgment day is upon us.

    The polls tell us which of the two to expect. Also are scientists who are going to the pop press with questionable global warming claims helping anything? They need a spanking.

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  11. Dylan Otto Krider Says:

    How about this poll taken at the beginning of the month:

    Here, a marjority found the frequency and intensity of hurricanes were mostly due to other factors. Most also found hurricanes not to be acts of God.

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  13. Dylan Otto Krider Says:

    I would also like to point out that all the news shows I saw that brought up this topic, when a scientist was interviewed, they said they hadn’t see the evidence yet. (I believe I heard this stated on MSNBC, FOX, the Weather Channel, and CNN, where your department was interviewed.)

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  15. Brian S. Says:

    I disagree with Josh and Roger over whether Roger has correctly interpreted the polling question. Roger thinks this is the question asked of people: “Tell us what you think science has currently established on global warming’s contribution to hurricanes – major, minor, or nothing?”

    I think the respondents believed they were being asked this: “What is the truth about global warming’s contribution to hurricanes, when all scientific uncertainty has been settled?” The question is closer to Roger’s statement about what science may tell us in the future than what we currently know.

    Here’s an analogy: what if the question asked, “Does life exist on other planets in our galaxy?” Roger, I assume, would say anyone answering “yes” is appallingly ignorant, because science has not yet established that life exists elsewhere. I would disagree, because science is giving us many indications (but not yet proof) that the truth is that life exists elsewhere. The same is true for hurricane intensity in recent years.

    The public answered the question accurately, IMHO.

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  17. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:

    All- Excellent comments on this thread, thanks. To the most recent point by Brian S., interesting, but I don’t buy it. It makes little sense to ask the public about “truth” since their understandings of “truth” simply come from the experts. So I doubt this was the intent of the pollsters. But among us, we have quite a list of suggestions for them!

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  19. Backseat driving Says:

    Doing my part to focus on the wrong question

    I expect Roger Pielke Jr. is right that some have exaggerated the extent we can connect the dots right now between current AGW and current hurricanes, but it really doesn’t matter as a policy question. The reason to change GHG policies now is becaus…

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  21. LD Says:

    I disagree with Roger’s point in the last post that people’s beliefs “simply come from experts”. People’s understandings of the “the truth” come from many sources, heavily-filtered views (e.g. through media) of experts only being one of them. What people believe comes strongly from, among many things, what they hear from their neighbors and relatives, what they hear on TV or read in the paper, and what they put together in their own heads based on snippets of information and their pre-existing beliefs. There are many issues, not just global warming-related or even science-related ones, that the public has vastly different beliefs about compared to the experts.

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  23. Andrew Dessler Says:


    I think you’ve overreacted a bit.

    “Could it be that the views of many scientists about the science of hurricanes and climate change are colored by their own political preferences, just like those of the public?”

    Let’s review: you have two data points, Bill Gray and Kevin Trenberth. One of these data points is a raving lunatic (I won’t say which one). Based on these two points, you’re extrapolating the behavior of the rest of the climate scientist community. Yesterday I flipped a coin twice and it came up heads both times. You’ve got me wondering if my next three thousand flips would also come up heads.

    My experience is that the vast majority of scientists sit above (or below) the fray, with little opinion of the matter. Most of those that do have an opinion appear to fall in the reasonable middle ground — e.g., Webster and Emanuel have not oversold their claims; see also the post on this subject. In the end, I imagine you’ll find it hard to get much supporting data for your hypothesis.

    The argument over hurricanes is exactly like every other argument in the climate change debate. A relatively small number of advocates (including some scientists with agendas/vendettas) twist the science to support their preferred policy position, and this of course gets quoted in the media. Misquoting Inspector Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find disagreement over science here!

    The difference is that you have a dog in this fight, and I think you take the misuse of science very personally here. I hope you have some sympathy now for Mann and co-authors in the hockey stick debate. But in the end, this is just another ordinary everyday run-of-the-mill boring fight over science in the climate change debate.

    As I’ve argued before, the key is to rely on assessments. I hope (and expect) this issue will be covered in the IPCC 4th assessment report, and we can point to that document as the authoritative answer to the question. People that disagree can then be tarred and feathered with confidence!


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  25. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:


    You are of course correct. It is complicated. Let me recommend this paper for those interested:

    Jacobs L (2001) Manipulators and manipulation: public opinion in a representative democracy, Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, 26, 6: 1361-1374.

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  27. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:


    Thanks for your comments. I think that you are way out of bounds calling Trenberth or Gray “a raving lunatic”. Surely, we can agree that both have had brilliant scientific careers, and even if we might disagree with their hypotheses, public relations skills or politics, each is earned the right to their views, no?

    My hypothesis is that all scientists have political views and biases. I can point to plenty of evidence on this, e.g., first check if that scientist has a pulse. The myth that scientists are “above the fray” is of course one of the justfications for turning political debates into scientific debates. It’s also bunk.

    I am less concerned about the “misuse of science” than bad decision making, and these are not the same thing. As a few commenters have observed on this site, one can legitimately justify a wide range of perspectives on hurricanes and climate.

    The hurricane issue is quite different than the “hockey stick” debate, in that the focus is on policy, not abstract science. The people at both RealClimate and ClimateAudit vigorously assert that their debate is about “science” and not politics or policy. As readers here know, I don’t have much sympathy for this fantasy. On the hurricane issue the policy question is, can we use GHG policies to modulate hurricane damages in the future (and when)? And if not, how then should we be spending our finite resources to deal with this issue? When, for example, the American Meteorological Society used their authority and convening power to organize a congressional briefing yesterday, looking at the experts they chose, the clearly think that the issue is a GHG issue, and not a disaster mitigation issue. The hurricane issue is all about policy and politics.

    The IPCC of course does not engage in explicit discussions of policy, particularly as related to hurricanes, so I would be surprised to see much useful on this subject in AR4, but let’s see.

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  29. Andrew Dessler Says:

    “My hypothesis is that all scientists have political views and biases. I can point to plenty of evidence on this, e.g., first check if that scientist has a pulse. The myth that scientists are “above the fray” is of course one of the justfications for turning political debates into scientific debates. It’s also bunk.”

    I agree that all scientists have views and biases. But that’s not what you said. You argued that scientists’ political views affect their scientific views. I disagree with this, and would ask what evidence you have beyond the two data points you cited. In my own experience, the multiple levels of verification that scientific results have to go through (peer review, subsequent retesting by the community) mean that producing flawed work in pursuit of a personal political agenda carries high risks of destroying scientific credibility (e.g., just consider your data points).

    “The hurricane issue is quite different than the “hockey stick” debate, in that the focus is on policy, not abstract science.”

    I disagree with this. The argument you cite between your data points is about attribution of the recent spate of hurricanes. Is global warming playing a role? That’s not a policy question any more than wondering if the MWP was warmer than today’s climate. Both have policy implications, but both are fundamentally well-posed scientific questions.

    I agree that the IPCC will not address policy, but I do suspect they will address the question of what role global warming is playing in the occurrence and strength of hurricanes.


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  31. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:


    Do political and other extra-scientific considerations affect the scientific views of scientists? Of coure they do. This has been well established through research. This does not mean that scientists necessarily invent data or otherwise do bad science, as you suggest. You can be motivated by political considerations (e.g., “climate change is a problem worth dealing with”) and still do good scientific work! Just few starting points in the literature:

    Barke, R., Jenkins-Smith, H., 1993. Politics and scientific expertise: scientists, risk perception, and nuclear waste policy. Risk Anal. 13, 425–439.

    Hull, D.L., 1988. Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science. University of Chicago
    Press, Chicago.

    Jasanoff, S., Wynne, B., 1998. Science and decision making. In: Rayner, S., Malone, E. (Eds.), Human Choice and Climate Change, vol. 1: The Societal Framework. Battelle Press, Columbus, OH, pp. 1–87.

    Lepkowski,W., 2002b. Maize, genes, and peer review. Sci. Policy Perspect. 14,

    Morgan, M.G., Keith, D.W., 1995. Subjective judgments by climate experts. Environ. Sci. Technol. 29, A468–A476.

    van der Sluijs, J., van Eijndhoven, J., Shackley, S., Wynne, B., 1998. Anchoring devices in science for policy: the case of consensus around climate sensitivity. Social Stud. Sci. 28 (2), 291–323.

    You write, “Is global warming playing a role [in hurricanes]? That’s not a policy question any more than wondering if the MWP was warmer than today’s climate.” Oh my, if you really think these are purely scientific questions, or can be somehow separated from their broader political context, then we’ll just agree to disagree.

    Thanks again for the exchange.

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  33. Rabett Says:

    I am not sure that I agree that either Trenberth or Gray have political biases. More accurately I think that whatever political biases they have are not relevant to their opinions on cyclones.

    Climate science is going through the same change that chemistry went through in the 70s and biology in the 90s, ie a change from an observationally driven science dominated by practical experience and the ability to tell a story, to a theory driven system. Gray is on the side of cladistics, Trenberth on the side of DNA studies. It is not just biology where ontology begets phylogeny.

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  35. Rabett Says:

    One further comment for Roger, today the word politics has come to be associated with partisan politics. Much of the politics you are pointing to in your last post appears to be policy, eg, which policy would be best. The issue is not that scientists and engineers are politics free in either sense, but whether the politics and policy they prefer precedes or follows their understanding of the science. I think your case is much weaker in that context, and to an extent you are trying to muddle the issue.