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Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2009


Polls' built-in bias may skew climate views

Staff writer

Last in a series

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama says he is determined to forestall irreversible climate damage by drastically cutting Japan's global warming gas emissions 25 percent by 2020 compared with the 1990 level, a bold pledge praised by the U.N., European leaders, developing nations like China, and environmental NGOs.

News photo
Pedal pushers: Elementary school students try out "community cycles" — part of a project to promote environmentally friendly transportation by sharing cars and bicycles — in the Marunouchi district in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, in October. KYODO PHOTO

But how do the Japanese people themselves feel about the target?

Surveys by the domestic media after Hatoyama's announcement show a clear majority supports his crusade against global warming.

For example, a poll by the Asahi Shimbun in October showed a support rate of 72 percent.

However, just how deep that enthusiasm runs remains to be seen, because polls have also shown that the level of support — or lack thereof — depends on how the questions are framed and the range of allowable responses.

Meeting Japan's goal will involve unprecedented investments in nonfossil fuel technologies, so actual short- and long-term costs are now the subject of much controversy, but there are fears the costs will be high.

The last Liberal Democratic Party-led government advocated a 15 percent cut based on 2005 levels and estimated a 25 percent cut would cost each household up to ¥360,000 a year.

This prompted the Democratic Party of Japan-led government to order another estimate by scholars who, Environment Minister Sakihito Ozawa said, "kindly root for the Hatoyama administration."

Still, environmentalists feel the people will continue to support Hatoyama's bold reduction pledge.

"Japanese are among the world's most educated when it comes to the realities of climate change, especially on science," said Masako Konishi, climate change project leader of WWF Japan. "The Japanese media have also improved their coverage of the issue these past few months, after first simply relying on what the previous government had said.

"And unlike the United States, we don't have a large, prominent contingent of climate change deniers, although there are a few scientists and commentators who do get time on television or produce 'manga' (comic books) that younger people see. So polls showing high levels of support for a 25 percent reduction by 2020, compared with 1990 levels, are, I think, pretty accurate," Konishi said.

About 10 opinion polls have been taken by major television stations and newspapers since mid-September, with support rates ranging between 63 percent and 79 percent, and opposition rates ranging between 13 percent and 22 percent.

While an NHK poll in mid-September showed only 42 percent supported a 25 percent cut, another taken a few weeks later by the public broadcaster showed the support rate had climbed to 71 percent.

Support rates higher than 70 percent were in line with a June poll commissioned by the major environmental nongovernmental organizations Kiko Network and WWF Japan, and conducted by the U.S.-based polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosener.

The Asahi Shimbun poll of 976 people asked if a cut of 25 percent lower than 1990 levels was too strong, about right, or not strong enough, and 30 percent replied "not strong enough," while 41 percent said "about right."

Respondents were told that Japanese corporations argued the nation was already so energy efficient that a 4 percent cut compared with 1990 levels was sufficient, while climate scientists had recommended a 25 percent reduction.

In addition, 61 percent of the respondents said a strong, ambitious 2020 emissions target would help the economy, while 28 percent said it would hurt economic growth.

The poll found 47 percent said it was very important for Japan to show leadership on climate change and 38 percent felt it somewhat important, whereas 14 percent said it was not too important or not important at all.

However, the LDP-New Komeito administration of Hatoyama's predecessor, Taro Aso, conducted a survey in May of about 1,200 people nationwide and came to a very different conclusion.

In that poll, only 4.9 percent of respondents supported a 25 percent cut compared with 1990 emission levels. On the other hand, 45.4 percent said they supported a 7 percent reduction compared with 1990. Aso later announced the 15 percent cut compared with 2005, which, when converted to a comparison with 1990, amounts to an 8 percent reduction.

The survey drew criticism from opposition party leaders and NGOs, who charged that it had been rigged to produce the result Aso and the business community wanted.

Critics pointed to the lead-in for one question that only vaguely noted "opinion is rising internationally" that developed countries should cut emissions by between 25 percent and 40 percent instead of saying those figures are what the United Nations strongly recommends and what a large number of European nations have already agreed to.

Another question asked how much of a monthly financial burden the respondent would be willing to bear for a global warming policy and offered pollees a range of between less than ¥1,000 and more than ¥10,000 a month.

Not surprisingly, 0.5 percent of the pollees supported a burden of more than ¥10,000. The last question then presented a number of options for reducing emissions. Without explaining how the calculation was arrived at, the choice of a 25 percent cut was offered with an estimate of a ¥11,000 per month increase per household in utility expenses if that choice was made.

Aso's government also claimed that, for a 25 percent cut in emissions, total public and private investment of about ¥190 trillion would be required, and individual households would face an annual financial burden of around ¥360,000.

"The Aso government was always opposed to strong targets, so the survey questions emphasized the burdens of a 25 percent reduction, not the benefits. It was thus not surprising so many people were opposed to a 25 percent cut. Public opinion may change depending on how survey questions are worded," said Konishi of WWF Japan.

But NGOs are likewise accused by opponents of tough targets of casting questions in public opinion polls to emphasize certain points and downplay or ignore others.

For example, the June survey, the subject of a full page advertisement in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, did not ask what the economic effects, positive or negative, might be to consumers and businesses living in a country that has to reduce emissions by 25 percent by 2020, only 11 years away, while competing with China and other emerging economies that are not obliged to set any legally binding reductions.

"Environmental NGOs, especially in Japan, often consist of people who refuse to accept the reality of Japan's need for a safe and stable supply of fossil fuel energy sources, and have unrealistic expectations for alternate energies. Their surveys are just as biased as the most biased government or industrial surveys," said one official at Kansai Electric Power Co., speaking anonymously.

Not all of Japan's major business leaders strongly oppose the cuts; many welcome them.

Yoshio Tateishi, chairman of Omron and head of the Kyoto Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the 25 percent reduction goal is possible with technical innovations, while Katsumasa Shinozuka, chairman of OKI Electric Industry Co., also said a high target is necessary. And some business leaders have taken a more philosophical view.

"The government and industry need to show courage to overcome the difficulty (of the 25 percent cut). Some businesspeople have criticized the goal as being too much of a burden. But if we fail to act now, the human race will be doomed," Kazuo Inamori, honorary chairman of Kyocera Corp., said after the Hatoyama announcement.

And despite questions and concerns about its potential costs, media polls still show strong support for the 25 percent cut.

NGO leaders say that is largely because growing numbers of Japanese see and feel the effects of climate change in the form of higher temperatures in the cities and disruptive weather patterns that affect harvests. They also realize that problems like the yellow sand from China that drifts over Japan in the late winter are related to climate change and global warming.

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