Climategate, Public Opinion, and the Loss of Trust

In 2007 and 2008, climate change reached the top of the international agenda, with world leaders discussing the issue at international meetings. Former Vice-president Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to alert the world to the threat. Media coverage and public concerns about global warming reached historic highs. Barack Obama, who had campaigned, in part, on the need to address climate change, won the U.S. presidential election along with a large majority of Democrats in both houses of the U.S. Congress. On June 26, 2009, the House of Representatives passed the first major piece of climate change legislation in American history. Meanwhile, the nations of the world were negotiating an internationally-binding treaty to be concluded in Copenhagen in December of 2009.

By the end of 2009, however, the situation had changed. The House climate bill stalled in the U.S. Senate. President Obama remained mired in a bruising fight over health care reform. Copenhagen failed to produce a new internationally binding treaty. Climate science itself was attacked on several fronts after a server at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the UK was breached and over a thousand emails and other documents were posted on the web, leading to an international scandal that the media dubbed “Climategate.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was found to have made several mistakes in the 2007 4th Assessment Report, including an erroneous and improperly sourced claim that the glaciers of the Himalaya could melt completely away by 2035, while the IPCC director, Rajendra Pachauri, was accused of several conflicts of interest by the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph, allegations he vigorously denied. December 2009 brought record cold temperatures to the eastern half of the United States, along with record snowfalls in the south and mid-Atlantic states. Some climate skeptics, members of the media, and elected officials then asserted that these various events “proved” that climate change is not happening or is a hoax. The accumulation of these events created a “perfect storm” of bad news for the effort to address climate change.

From December 24, 2009 to January 4, 2010, we conducted a nationally representative survey of American adults (n = 1,001) to assess shifts in public climate change beliefs, risk perceptions, policy preferences, and behaviors, and the impact of Climategate on public opinion. Baseline measures were taken from a nationally representative survey (n = 2,164) conducted in October and November of 2008.