Global Warming
Project Index:

Title Page
Competing Ideas and Interest Groups
Assessments of Public Opinion
Diversity and Dynamics of Opinion
Biographical Note

Competing Ideas and Interest Groups

By Glynn R. Wilson

Updated May 2, 1998.

The Global Warming Question

     Scientists have debated the global warming question since 1898, when Swedish scientist Svante Ahrrenius first warned that carbon dioxide emissions, from coal and oil, could accumulate in the atmosphere and lead to global warming. The debate picked up steam in the 1980s when computer models of world climate projected temperature rises, and then NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress in 1988 that global warming "is already happening now." The first climate change treaty was signed by 170 nations in 1992, although many scientists and policymakers still harbored doubts.

     A major turning point occurred, ironically, in the fall of 1995, a few months after a new wave of conservative Republican Congressmen took the oath of office, according to the New York Times (Stevens, Sept. 5, 1995). A consensus seemed to be emerging that not only was the greenhouse effect real, and that the global climate was indeed warming, but that human activity was largely to blame. Consider this lead in to the Times story, and keep in mind that this is the national newspaper of record, a paper with a long history and stellar reputation in covering science issues.

     In an important shift of scientific judgment, experts advising the world's governments on climate change are saying for the first time that human activity is a likely cause of the warming of the global atmosphere.
     While many climatologists have thought this to be the case, all but a few have held until now that the climate is so naturally variable that they could not be sure they were seeing a clear signal of the feared greenhouse effect . . .
     But a growing body of data and analysis now suggests that the warming of the last century, and especially of the last few years, "is unlikely to be entirely due to natural causes and that a pattern of climatic response to human activities is identifiable in the climatological record," says a draft summary of a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (p. 1A).

     From this juncture forward, it is fair to say that a consensus was forming, although not without its critics. Before we get to a discussion of the science and policy debate, however, it seems appropriate to define a few key concepts.

Competing Ideas

     Virtually all public controversies include philisophical and practical disagreements. This is true of ideas in the climate change debate and in the realm of public opinion. Values are often at the core of disputes, especially when they become politicized. A few of the key competing ideas are discussed below.

     The Greenhouse Effect

     In spite of what you may hear on talk radio, or read on the Internet, there is little dispute in the scientific community that there is a greenhouse effect around the earth. The presence in the atmosphere of gases such as carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane allow incoming sunlight to pass through, but absorb heat radiated back from the earth's surface, causing the atmosphere to trap solar radiation. This process works much like a plastic cover over a greenhouse for plants, thus the name greenhouse effect. If not for the heat generated in this way, we could not grow crops in the ground or even survive ourselves. In short, the heat from the greenhouse effect allows humans and other life forms to survive on planet earth.

     The problem is, greenhouse effect is often used as a synonym for global warming or climate change by reporters and laypersons. Even some researchers have begun combining the terms into greenhouse warming, and in some cases refer to the problem as the enhanced greenhouse effect, to indicate the human influence on the natural greenhouse effect. While these terms are understandable to those of us emmersed in understanding the problem, I wonder what effects these terms have on public understanding and opinion. While no evidence exists to date, I suspect the absence of a consistent frame of reference leads to confusion on the part of some members of the public at large.

     Global Warming

     The science and policy dispute centers on whether the mean annual temperature of the earth is actually increasing due to the buildup of greenhouse gases, released primarily from the burning of fossil fuels as a byproduct of industrial processes. These include carbon dioxide released from automobiles. A consensus among climatologists emerged in the 1990s that the effects are real and potentially threatening, although it seems some physicists, industrial sources, and political conservatives continue their dispute of the issue, potentially turning off and confusing certain segments of the population.

     The global warming question is also where the reporting gets interesting--observing the stakeholders in the debate try and out expert each other. It is the point at which much of the general public tunes out the media coverage, due to the nature of how reporters tend to cover controversy. According to Miller (1998) and other researchers there are three reasons why the news media distort the agenda: traditional news values, professional constraints, and journalists' relationship to official or expert sources. For accurate information on a highly complex issue such as global warming, the informed public should turn to specialized science writers in large news organizations such as the New York Times.

     As this paper was being prepared for presentation during the last week of April, 1998, the New York Times published several stories revealing a telling incident in the global warming dispute. A petition signed by 15,0000 scientists, mostly physicists, was circulated in a typeface closely resembling the National of Academy of Sciences journal. It was accompanied by an unpublished, non-peer reviewed study making the outrageous claim that carbon dioxide emissions pose no climatic threat, and in fact amounts to "a wonderful and unexpected gift from the Industrial Revolution" (Stevens, April 22, 1998). The Academy quickly distanced itself from the petition and study, citing its own 1991 report, which concluded that global warming posed a threat and merited a prompt response.

     That story was followed a few days later by another exposing a multi-million dollar plan by an informal group of people working for big oil companies, trade associations and conservative policy think tanks to try and reframe the global warming story. One idea was to recruit scientists who share industry's views and train them in public relations, to try and convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to spend money on pollution controls. This group reportedly met several times at the Washington office of the American Petroleum Institute, and documents showed participants from Exxon, Chevron, and Southern Company (Cushman, April 26, 1998).

     An Op-Ed piece in the Saturday Times shined more light on the controversy. University of Maryland physics professor Robert L. Park said he received a note from Frederick Seitz, a physicist and a past president of the National Academy of Sciences, asking him to sign a peitition card opposing the global climate change accord. The message said to make the world a better place by burning more hydrocarbons. Park asked why scientists with access to the same data come to such passionate disagreement?

What seperates the two sides may not be so much an argument over scientific facts, scientific laws or even the scientific method, but profoundly different political and religious views . . . The great war over global warming, then, is more about values than it is about science (Park, May 2, 1998).

     Defining Publics

     While competing ideas of what constitutes a public can be found in the academic literature, some consensus exists between sociologists, political scientists, and communication scholars. Opinions can be seen as individual opinion or public opinion. According to Price (1992), the most common conception of public opinion can be equated with an "aggregation of individual opinions," the stuff of public opinion polls today (p. 22). The sociological model used today is the direct descendent of Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke, Rousseau, Mill and Bentham, although it harkens back to the ideas of Aristotle (p. 5). Democratic theory developed in the context of social pressure on government institutions in the nineteenth century to counter abuses of power, and forms the basis of our notions of freedom of information and the watchdog press (p. 14).

     On the macrosocial level, Miller stratafies the public into elites, the active public, the informed public, the available public, and the inert. The elites have access to power, the active get involved, the informed keep up but do not always get directly involved but may vote, for example. At the bottom of this schema are the inert, the "Beavis and Buttheads" in society (Miller, April 8, 1998).

     Within the sociological paradigm, the social movements perspective divides the knowable world into layers or orbits of public opinion, specifically as it relates to opinions on environmental quality (Dunlap, et al., 1995).

     It is not clear whether these categorizations should be pared down to the fewest possible groups, or whether an exhaustive, mutually exclusive list would better serve social science researchers. So for now this analysis moves on to the issue of public debate and discourse, then to competing stakeholders.

     Public Debate

     Central to an analysis of how public opinion is formed in so-called democratic societies is the notion of public debate (Price, 1992). A number of scholars note that "politics consists largely of the creation and suppression of issues" (p. 32). And it is widely accepted that actors "expend considerable energy trying to frame the conflict in a way that best serves their interests" (p. 32, emphasis added).

     A careful analysis of media coverage of global warming--and the public relations battle on the Internet--confirms that this process of public debate and framing is at work on this hot socio-public issue. Hot Bot and Excite searches for global warming on the World Wide Web produced more than 631,000 hits.

Competing Interest Groups or Stakeholders

     Stakeholders in the global warming debate obviously exclude the inept and most of the congenial public, even some of the enlightened public, those who do not get involved in public policy or appear in the media coverage of the issue. Stakeholders can be divided into proponents and opponents of legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to reduce global warming. Proponents include activists in environmental organizations, policymakers and governments of ecologically sensitive nations, and business groups whose clients stand to gain from regulations on fossil fuel-based industries. Opponents include anti-global warming regulation groups, such as manufacturing interests, coal and oil industry lobbyists, as well as governments from nations which see a global warming agreement as a threat to their economic future. The liberal-conservative labels, philosophical or political, would not be fully descriptive in this case. Consider these examples.

     Regulation Proponents

          Activist Groups

     According to coverage of the Global Warming Summit in Kyoto, Japan late last year by the New Scientist, (Dec. 1997), most environment groups favor tough measures to curb global warming.

         Other Proponents

     Regulation Opponents

     On the other side of the debate are opponents of government regulations to curb global warming.

     In the next section, measures of public opinion on global warming will be assessed.

Copyright Glynn R. Wilson, 1998.
All rights reserved.

Title Page | Introduction | Competing Ideas and Interest Groups | Assessments of Public Opinion |
Diversity and Dynamics of Opinion | Conclusions | Bibliography | Biographical Note