Polling indicates belief in climate change has risen - so why does the Sunday Times describe it as 'cooling off'?

  • 25 Jun 2012, 15:00
  • Robin Webster

Last year the Sunday Times decided not to report the results of a survey it commissioned, which showed that a majority of the British public supports an expansion of renewable power.

Now, it has apparently repeated the trick, polling people over their belief in climate change and attitudes towards different energy sources, and then only reporting half of the results - and those with a very particular spin.

Belief in global warming

The results of the survey, undertaken on 21st-22nd June this year, are reported in a pull-out fact box in yesterday's Sunday Times.

Under the headline ' Cooling off', the Sunday Times announces: "Less than half the public believe climate change  is man-made, according to a new poll." It adds:

"The YouGov survey  for The Sunday Times reveals just 43% think human activity is making the world warmer. This compares with 55% when the same question was asked in 2008. The number who believe the world is not becoming warmer has risen from 7% to 15%."

We turned to the full version of the study as reported by YouGov to see if there was any more detail, and found some interesting results oddly absent from the Sunday Times piece.

In its report on the survey, rather than comparing climate change belief with statistics from 2008 as the Sunday Times has done, pollsters YouGov compare the results with the last time they asked the questions in 2010.

The comparison actually shows that more people now think the world is warming because of human activity than in 2010. (4% more). Slightly more people also think that the world is becoming warmer - but not because of human activity (2% more). Compared to 2010, slightly fewer people think that the world is not warming (3% less).

Perhaps the most obvious story that could have been written from these results is 'Belief in climate change rises'.

But the Sunday Times chose to go with the headline 'Cooling off - Less than half the public believe climate change is man-made'. The second part is correct, but in order to justify the 'cooling off' statement, it went back an extra two years to 2008, comparing with a time when public belief in climate change was higher than it is now.

So perhaps the fullest story would have been 'Belief in climate change rising, but still lower than it was four years ago'?

Or as YouGov puts it in its conclusion:

"While the trend here is towards belief in manmade global warming, it is still lower than the same question was showing in 2008, when 55% of British people thought the world was getting warmer due to man's activity."

The full results look like this: 

  March 7-11 2008 Oct 25-26 2010 June 21-22 2012
The world is becoming warmer as a result of human activity 55 39 43
The world is becoming warmer but NOT because of human activity 25 27 22
The world is NOT becoming warmer 7 18 15
Not sure 13 16 20

Numbers indicate percentage of respondents. 

Support for renewable energy

The next bit of the poll is perhaps made more interesting by the Sunday Times's decision to not report it. The survey asked about public attitudes towards different energy technologies:

"Which of the following systems of energy generation would you like to see used MORE in the world today?".

The results look like this:

Solar power - 67
Wave/ tidal power -58
Wind power -44
Hydroelectric - 43
Nuclear power - 25
Gas - 5
Coal - 5
Oil - 1
None of the above - 1
Don't know - 8

(Per cent. Respondents were asked to choose up to three technologies.)

So, for example, nearly nine times as many respondents expressed a preference for more wind power generation around the world than for more gas power.

Strong support for renewables is reflected - although to a slightly lesser extent - in the responses to the question about which two or three technologies respondents would most like to see used less:

Oil - 61
Coal - 55
Nuclear power - 35
Gas - 35
Wind power - 15
Wave/ tidal power - 2
Solar power - 2
Hydro-electric - 1
None of the above - 2
Don't know - 10

(Per cent as before.)

Not unprecedented

The Sunday Times's spin on the poll results isn't the first time it hasn't been entirely forthcoming with polling results. In November last year, the paper commissioned a similar survey from YouGov, again including questions about the level of support for renewable energy.

The results also indicated a strong support for renewable energy - for example, 60 per cent of people expressed support for wind power subsidies.

The Sunday Times chose not to report those results either, although when the raw polling was released by YouGov a few days later, the Guardian did instead.

Narrative and numbers

Polls about renewables and climate change are a well-established method of getting an easy news story, and there's nothing particularly new about selective or partial reporting of poll results.

It's interesting though that the Sunday Times - a paper which has recently been pushing an anti-renewables line - is interested enough in the matter to regularly poll public opinion on climate change and energy issues. But it then appears reluctant to report the results when they run counter to its editoral line.

If the results start to run the other way at some point, will the Sunday Times report them more fully?

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