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Broad consensus on climate change across American states

Posted on 18 November 2013 by John Cook

Reposted from The Conversation.

A recent US “survey of surveys” by Stanford University Professor Jon Krosnick has analysed public opinion on climate change in 46 of USA’s 50 states. Krosnick found to his surprise that, regardless of geography, most Americans accept that global warming is happening and that humans are causing it.

In all 46 states, they found that at least 75% of participants thought global warming was happening. Even in traditionally conservative red states such as Texas, 84% thought global warming was happening and 72% agreed humans were the cause. Acceptance of global warming increased to at least 84% for states hit by drought or vulnerable to sea level rise.

In all states, at least 65% of Americans thought humans were causing global warming. Utah showed the lowest level at 65% while acceptance was highest in New Hampshire with 90%. Most Americans also supported government curbs of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

This is comparable to a CSIRO analysis that found 75% of Australians believe climate change is happening. While these results indicate high public acceptance of climate science, there is still a significant gap between public opinion and the views of climate scientists. A 2009 survey of the scientific community found that among actively publishing climate scientists, 97.4% agreed that human activity was changing global temperature.

This result has since been replicated by an analysis of public statements by climate scientists, finding 97% consensus among 908 scientists who had published peer-reviewed climate research. Earlier this year, I was part of a team that analysed 21 years of climate research. Among 4,014 papers that stated a position on human-caused global warming, we found 97.1% agreement that humans were causing global warming.

Of course, let me head off the flood of inevitable comments by pointing out that our understanding of climate change is based on empirical evidence. There are many lines of independent observations indicating that humans are causing global warming. The consilience of evidence has resulted in an overwhelming and strengthening consensus in the climate science community.

Three quarters of Americans may not be as high as the 97% scientific consensus. However, politically speaking, it is still a strong majority. So why is there so little support for climate action among politicians?

While the general public on average accepts climate science, Republicans are more likely to reject the scientific consensus. This is particularly the case with conservative Republicans, who are more likely to vote in primaries. During the 2012 Republican Presidential primaries, even candidates who accepted the science were forced to reject the scientific consensus in order to gain the support of their party.

Many studies have found a significant link between political ideology and climate beliefs. In 2006, Heath and Gifford found that support for unfettered free markets was a significant predictor of climate change concern. In other words, those who oppose government regulation of the fossil fuel industry are more likely to reject climate change science. The more politically conservative one is, the more likely they are to reject climate science.

However, there is a schism even within the Republican Party. A recent Pew survey found that among Tea Party members, only 25% accept global warming. In contrast, 61% of other Republicans accept that global warming is happening. A minority group out of kilter with the rest of the populace and the scientific community are exerting a disproportionate influence on the public discourse about climate change.

This is also occurring in Australia. A survey of Australian views on climate change found that only 7% of Australians think climate change isn’t happening. When the 7% of Australians who deny climate change are asked to estimate how many Australians share their views, they estimate 49%. This is known as the false consensus effect, a tendency to overestimate how popular one’s opinion is.

However, a more insidious and destructive effect is pluralistic ignorance. This is where people privately reject an opinion but incorrectly think others accept it. For example, when Australians are asked to estimate the percentage of Australians that deny climate change, the average answer is at least 20% - around three times the actual amount.

Similarly, there is a significant gap between public perception of scientific consensus and the 97% reality. A 2012 survey found that 57% of Americans either disagreed with or were unaware of the fact that most scientists agree global warming is happening. This matters because perceived consensus is a strong predictor of support for climate policy. When people think the scientists agree, they are more likely to support climate action.

Unfortunately, mainstream media outlets are perpetuating the misconceptions. One way they achieve this is by granting outlier voices disproportionate visibility in the public arena, creating misleading and counterproductive debates.

For example, ABC’s Q&A regularly features public figures who reject climate science (but are rarely climate scientists). While the back-and-forth generates much heat that arguably makes for entertaining television, such displays reinforce the myth of disagreement among the climate science community.

The public need to recognise that contrarian voices that deny the scientific consensus are a minority among the general public. More importantly, the public need to correctly perceive that scientists who reject the consensus are a vanishingly small minority in the climate science community, which shows an overwhelming and strengthening consensus.

John Cook does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Comments 1 to 8:

  1. This is all familiar for those who have been following the subject. But the fact that most people have wildly mistaken understandings of what scientists and non-scientists think shows there is need to keep getting the information out.  As Frank Luntz, the man who taught Republicans how to get their message out, wrote, "There’s a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time."

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  2. "Extreme Whether" is a new play that tells the story of the obstruction of climate science by deniers.

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  3. Just as fear of the gun lobby keeps politicians from passing sensible gun laws, so fear of the fossil fuel industry lobby leads politicians from addressing the threat of climate change.  Even though the vast majority of Americans are in favor of universal background checks for buying firearms, members of Congress won't pass such laws for fear that the NRA and its minions will punish them politically.  Even if the vast majority of Americans believed in anthropogenic global warming and demanded our government do something about it, the Republicans in Congress would persist in pretending that global warming is not happening, is all a "liberal hoax" -- this to keep from being "primaried."  Depressing.

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  4. This is very positive. It shows that the hard work of scientists and dedicated people in general to get the word out, despite defective media tendencies to mal-inform. Except for Murdock's private disinformation network, most media is simply not dedicated to good reporting. As the article shows they must make the show flow and interesting. Importantly, reporters don't want to alienate the audience. They will say we listened to both sides, giving the impression of equality.

    One way to combat this tendency may be to take the rhetoric to the other side. The argument that all weather events are affected by additional energy in the system is more true than the idea that any single event cannot be demonstrated to be exclusively the result of climate change. The meteorological community, reporters in particularly, should consider the important responsibility of the distinction, just like they inform people when weather threatens their life of property.

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  5. kanspaugh @3. While not denying the power of lobbying groups, the analogy between the NRA and fossil fuel industry doesn't play well. The former claim second amendment rights in support of the right to bear arms, and short of being in the firing line, Joe Public isn't affected by the NRA's love of weapons. Not so with climate change; Joe Public most certainly will be affected. And while a good majority of them may believe that climate change is real, I suspect very few really have any idea of the catastrophe that awaits, if not them, then their children and grandchildren.

    With at least one notable exception, climate scientists have been very conservative in aggressively telling the public about what the future may – no, WILL – bring without adequate reductions in CO2 emissions. I suspect most of the public think in terms of perhaps a few more storms in the mid-west, maybe some water shortages in the south west, and maybe some more events like Sandy (but the insurance companies will pay, won’t they?). Do they really know the likelihood of extended drought in the mid-west and south west, decimating livestock production, and making the south west uninhabitable due to lack of fresh water (‘A 12000 year perspective of 21st century drought in southwestern North America’, Woodhouse et. al, PNAS 2009)? Do they understand that there is nothing they can do to save east coast cities from rising sea levels (‘Rapid accumulation for committed sea level rise from global warming’, Strauss, PNAS, 2013)? Do they understand that rising summer temperatures will result in significant decline in production of corn, soybeans and cotton (‘Nonlinear temperature effects indicate severe damages to US crop yields under climate change’, Schlenker and Roberts, PNAS, 2009)? I suspect not.

    Some people may take solace in knowing that timescales may be measured in centuries, but with the Arctic melt trend lines suggesting an ice free summer by 2016/2017 weather patterns will continue to change for the worse in much shorter timescales. And catastrophic collapse of the WAIS – likely to occur once the Ross ice shelf disintegrates - would cause significant sea level rise occur in decades.

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  6. Politicians serve the people that give them funds to run their campaigns, not the people that elect them.  The only way America will get out of this paradigm is to ban all election contributions and legislate equal, tax payer funded air time for each politician to present his case.  Besides air time, each politician gets a set amount of funding from the government.  It sounds expensive.  It is far less expensive that the present completely democracy corrupting system.

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  7. Something like the NZ Electoral Finance Act?

    I think Americans strongly believe that the rights of very rich people to have undue influence on politics is a fundamental freedom, and this "freedom" trumps any other rights that might be conflicted.

    In short, good luck. As an outsider looking in and having discussed this with many US citizens, it appears vested interests have very successfully pushed rhetoric about "freedom" to point where no reasonable discussion is possible. I'm glad I live here instead.

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  8. Further to scaddenp's remarks, unfortunately the Supreme Court here has officially declared that we have as much free speech as money can buy.  By so doing they instantly enshrined a new class of super-citizens as it follows logically that if you have more money you have more free speech, but that's the going word at present. Perhaps later with a different bench and an argument that can once again reach the Supreme Court we can dethrone  our super-citizens.

    Of course this same composition of the court that created super-citizens also cannot parse a sentence with multiple clauses, thereby apparently being forced to choose a favorite part, so odds are we'll do better in the future. It hardly seems possible to underperform in comparison. Maybe. This is the also the country that is replacing letters and numbers on cash registers with pictures of things being sold. 

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