Scientific advocacy, environmental interest groups, and climate change: are climate skeptic portrayals of climate scientists as biased accurate?

Abstract

Public discourse on climate change often refers to possible bias among climate scientists as a rationale for limited climate policy action by the United States. Part of this discussion is the association of scientists with environmental interest groups and whether such affiliations facilitate the perception that climate scientists lack objectivity. While surveys suggest that some climate scientists disapprove of affiliations with interest groups, recent research indicates that climate scientists are quite likely to be involved with environmental organizations. This paper compares the affiliations of scientists and the general public to discern whether scientists are uniquely likely to affiliate with interest groups or they simply share characteristics common to the public who also affiliate with these organizations. Our findings suggest that climate scientists are no more likely to donate money, but are less likely to sign a petition or attend a demonstration, when controlling for other factors. These results strengthen our understanding of the affiliations between scientists and interest groups and hold implications for the accuracy of popular perceptions of climate scientists.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The 13 journals sampled were Global Environmental Change, Journal of Climate, Journal of Atmospheric Sciences, Journal of Geophysical Research, Climatic Change, Journal of Applied Meteorology, Monthly Weather Review, Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology, Weather and Forecasting; Journal of Hydrometeorology; Earth Interactions; Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, and Meteorological Monographs.

  2. 2.

    Following the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) conventions and algorithms, the 2004 response rate was 12 %, the cooperation rate was 18.6 %, and the completion rate was 69.1 %. The 2007 survey response rate was 6.9 %, the cooperation rate was 14.7 %, and the completion rate was 69.5 %. Lower AAPOR computed response rates have been the norm because of many factors, one being their inclusion of completely failed contacts in the computational denominator. Recent studies have significantly reduced the need to fear these lowered rates. For example, Merkle and Edelman (2002) find no relationship between response rate and survey accuracy, and Keeter et al. (2006) find that surveys with lower response rates are statistically indistinguishable from those with higher response rates. AAPOR itself has recently acknowledged this reality (See www.aapor.org/response_rates_an_overview1.htm).

  3. 3.

    The 2007 national public survey only asked respondents about donating money to an environmental group in the previous one year. Consequently, this data is not included in the other analyses.

  4. 4.

    Although there appears to be inconsistent scopes between the independent and dependent variables, this is out of necessity. While there were certainly niche groups that existed at the time of these surveys that focused primarily on climate change, climate change was not the sole objective of any of the largest environmental interest groups (e.g. Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, or Environmental Defense) or groups that cross between wildlife and environmental interests (e.g. World Wildlife Fund, National Audubon Society, or Ducks Unlimited). This distinction is particularly important for the public surveys, where it is less likely that respondents would know of climate change niche groups, but would be familiar with the mainstream groups. If anything, the inconsistent scopes create a tougher test for the primary independent variables.

  5. 5.

    Although not presented in the analysis, we estimated a third model that sought to determine whether there was a temporal difference between the 2004 and 2007 survey respondents. Both dichotomous variables are statistically significant and negative, which suggests that there was not a large difference based on time or due to the limitation of only one year in the 2007 survey.

  6. 6.

    We also estimated these models using a complementary log-log regression, which is designed to estimate better dichotomous dependent variables associated with rare events. With less than 15 % of the overall pooled cases having attended a demonstration, this is a relatively rare event, yet the results show no substantively important differences. Therefore, for consistency, we present the logit results.

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Acknowledgments

This material is based upon research conducted by the Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy in The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University under awards NA03OAR4310164 and NA04OAR4600172 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the Department of Commerce. The authors would like to thank Kellee Kirkpatrick, Carol Goldsmith, and the reviewers for their comments throughout the development of this project.

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Correspondence to Arnold Vedlitz.

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Appendix

Table 5 Variable definitions

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Bromley-Trujillo, R., Stoutenborough, J.W. & Vedlitz, A. Scientific advocacy, environmental interest groups, and climate change: are climate skeptic portrayals of climate scientists as biased accurate?. Climatic Change 133, 607–619 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-015-1477-0

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Keywords

  • Interest Group
  • Environmental Group
  • Climate Scientist
  • Free Rider Problem
  • Demographic Indicator