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Climate Hustle

Americans are confused on climate, but support cutting carbon pollution

Posted on 6 March 2017 by dana1981

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication published the findings of its 2016 survey on American public opinion about climate change. The results are interesting – in some ways confusing – and yet they reveal surprisingly broad support for action to address climate change. The Yale team created a tool with which the results can be broken down by state, congressional district, or county to drill down into the geographic differences in Americans’ climate beliefs.

Acceptance of science despite confusion about expert consensus

The first survey questions asked about participants’ beliefs about whether climate change is happening, what’s causing it, what scientists think, and whether they trust climate scientists. Overall, 70% of Americans realize that global warming is happening, while just 12% said it’s not. A majority of Americans in every state answered the question correctly, ranging from 60% in West Virginia to 77% in New York and 84% in Washington DC. Drilling down to a more local level, majorities in every congressional district and nearly every county in America were aware of the reality of global warming.

But when asked whether most scientists think global warming is happening, Americans got a failing grade. Just 49% correctly answered ‘yes,’ while 28% believed there’s a lot of disagreement among scientists. In reality, even 95% of weathercasters – who are among the most doubtful groups of scientists about human-caused global warming – realize that climate change is happening. This shows that the campaign to cast doubt on the expert consensus on global warming has been remarkably successful in the US.

However, Americans trust climate scientists on the subject of global warming. Overall, 71% trust the scientific experts, while 26% distrust them. Majorities of Americans in every state, county, and congressional district trust climate scientists.

Regarding the cause of that global warming, only 53% of Americans correctly answered that it’s caused mostly by human activities, while 32% incorrectly said it’s mostly natural. By state, correct responses varied from 42% in Wyoming to 59% in California and 67% in Washington DC.

support

Strangely, more Americans accept that humans are causing global warming than believe scientists agree that the Earth is warming to begin with, even though they trust the scientific experts. This points to a high level of uncertainty among Americans about what scientific experts really think about climate change. Given that Americans don’t mind if climate scientists engage in general science advocacy, this suggests that perhaps more scientific experts should speak out about climate science realities and the expert consensus on human-caused global warming.

Americans view climate change as a distant problem

58% of the Americans surveyed said they’re worried about global warming, while 42% aren’t. By state, answers varied from 45% worry in West Virginia to 67% in New York and 74% in Washington DC. Interestingly, even in a coal-heavy state like West Virginia, nearly half of Americans are worried about climate change. 

However, only 40% of Americans think global warming is harming them today (with no state reaching 50%), and just 58% think global warming will harm Americans in the future. 63% of Americans think climate change will harm people in third world countries, 70% think it will harm future generations, and 69% think it will harm plants and animals.

In short, these survey results confirm that Americans tend to view climate change as a problem distant in time and space. They think it won’t harm them; rather, that it will mostly hurt people far away and/or in the future. This explains why - despite majority acceptance of the science - Americans view climate change as a low priority.

But Americans want climate action

However, Americans displayed wide and broad support for climate solutions. 82% favor funding for renewable energy research; in fact, support was at least 78% in every state. 75% of Americans also support regulating carbon as a pollutant, ranging from 66% support in Wyoming to 81% in New York and 86% in Washington DC. This despite the fact eliminating EPA carbon pollution regulations is currently high on the agenda for House Republicans and the Trump Administration. 

support

Similarly, a majority of Americans in every state (even coal-heavy states) support setting strict carbon pollution regulations for coal power plants, and requiring utilities to produce 20% of their electricity from renewable sources. Simply put, Americans love clean energy and support taking action to curb carbon pollution. This even holds for Trump voters, 62% whom support carbon taxes, regulations, or both.

trump voters

American support for climate action is broad but shallow

The two most important results from this survey are that a strong majority of Americans in every state, county, and congressional district support climate policies, but relatively few are worried about climate change ever hurting them personally. In short, because Americans view climate change as a problem distant in time and space, they don’t consider it an urgent problem or high priority, and thus they don’t penalize politicians who take actions to undermine the climate policies that American voters support.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 9:

  1. So this is the general picture in summary: A narrow majority of Americans think we are altering the climate, and not that many are concerned about the future, yet a large majority want action on climate change ( a great thing in my opinion).

    It's intriguing and contradictory, but there are possible explanations. Firstly  It suggests whatever some people think about causes of climate change, they see value in renewable energy for a variety of other reasons.

    Secondly it suggests some people are sceptical about the science, but want emissions reduced "just in case" the science is right. So people are sort of half sceptical, and very confused or uncertain in America (and probably some other countries) and this is hardly surprising, given an irresponsible, self interested campaign to spread doubt about the science, and generally politicise the climate issue.

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  2. I have a slightly different take.  I'm not sure people are that skeptical of scientists - trust is at 71% afterall, which is darn high.  But what they think scientists believe is different from what scientists actually believe, and not by a small amount. While 53 % thought climate change was human caused, a marginally smaller fraction (49%) think scientists agree with that proposition.  People have an imaginary scientist in mind when they trust them!

    Three possible explanations non exclusive explanations.

    1. We and the press have done a terrible job at emphasizing the degree of consensus about the issue.  The simplistic equal time approach of most journalism is a factor.  Also, obviously, the intense counter PR by fossil fuel companies.

    2. The fact that "climate change" has become a code word in the culture wars pitting so called "coastal elites" against small town "common folk." (As I supposedly come from both, I hate those terms!). That is part of a larger PR campaign, it's true, but one that amplifies pre-existing divisions in US society - and maybe across the Western World.  But it may explain why people are fine with approaches that address anthropogenic climate change without having to admit to it.

    3. People like to believe their position is right and claim science supports it to buttress their case. 

    The degree to which each hypothesis is correct may suggest different approaches to addressing the problem.

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  3. Interesting in the first map where (outside of the NE) you find rural counties with relatively high percentages understanding climate science: predominantly Black counties in the deep South; predominantly Latino communities in, for example, Texas; predominantly Native American counties in say Arizona and South Dakota; centers of organic farming such as SE Wisconsin and thereabouts. So...it's white, non-organic farmers and their communities we have to work on, it seems. Any ideas?

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  4. I have seen reports that white, non-organic farmers are aware that the weather is changing.  For political reasons they do not talk about climate change, they say "unusual weather we have been having lately".  SInce it is for political reasons that they do not argue for changes, more data is unlikely to change their minds.  It is not clear to me why they would notice weather changing, which is critical to their business success, but not take action to preserve the weather we have.

    A new message has to be developed to reach this important group of people who already know that the weather has changed.  Since you have experience with these groups of people, can you suggest a message that will counter the fossil fule story?  Perhaps the next severe drought in the Midwest will convince them to take action.

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  5. It strikes me that those more inclined to acceptance of CC and regulation of CO2 emissions are geographically distributed in regions increasingly subject to drought and coastal or regional flooding. Perhaps direct experience is the relative demographic parameter?

     

    yours

    Frank

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  6. Right on, M. Sweet, this is what jumps out from the maps at me too. Regions strongly affected can be won over with message targeted at their cultural concerns.

    Once on board, the Senate will move to rapid action, because it is strongly controlled by the rural parts of the nation: 2 Senator represent 38 million Californians, whereas an equal number of 2 senators represent the scant population of Wyoming.

    The presidency will go the same way too because of the electoral college system distortion.

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  7. Stephen Baines @2, you make the point regarding the narrow majority believing we are altering the climate, but the larger majority wanting renewable energy. You appear to say the numbers might suggest people may accept the science, but be relutant to openly  admit we are altering the climate because they don't want to be seen as identifying with the liberal elite, but find it easier to say they support renewable energy. It's a good point.

    They may also be unwilling to accept that humanity has potentially done something wrong, or have religious convictions that humans could not possibly alter Gods creation (I say this respectfully), but are still able to support renewable energy. It's a peculiar and contradictory mental state, but entirely possible, because humans are knownfor being able to hold contradictory views in their head,without being bothered by the tension of this. I read a psychological article on this somewhere.

    However we also have the situation where only a narrow majority believe we are altering the climate, but a bigger majority want carbon emissions cut. This is harder to explain, and suggests they are confused, or half sceptical,  and are kind of "betting a dollar both ways".

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  8. Great topic. Americans opinions on CC are broad but shallow. IE since it's a distant problem, God or technology (or both) - will come thru for us so it's not an immediate concern. But it is a 'concern' and we need not forget it.

    That's my experience listening to most serious voters here in Texas. The majority don't dispute the problem. Just the solution (the ones they hear anyway) turn them off.

    But there is a overwhelming problem. The biggest mismatch seems to be a lack of understanding for biodiversity, the "web of life" relationships and basic science stuff (when an individual link stops working- the chain weakens).

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  9. Also, I've had some luck by admitting I firmly beleive man has caused Global Warming - but if we differ on that, so what? It's still a problem! And it's exacerbated by more GHGs.

    Often the other side, pauses and rethinks their entire conclusion (which is what we want - right?)

    OK, I say: "If a tornado is heading my way, I won't sit there until I figure out how it started. "

    Is that maybe a good way to argue?

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