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Why people around the world fear climate change more than Americans do

Posted on 2 November 2017 by Guest Author

Gregory J. Carbone, Professor of Geography, University of South Carolina

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

When asked about major threats to their country, Europeans are more likely than Americans to cite global climate change, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Just 56 percent of Americans see climate change as a major threat, versus an average of 64 percent of Europeans surveyed.

Why the difference? Like climate data itself, data regarding public concern for climate change are “noisy.” Public response can vary depending on what’s going on in the news that week. Surveys of these types of surveys find no single explanation for how the public perceives the threat of climate change.

Of course, many explanations exist. As a climatologist who has taught university classes and given public lectures on global climate change for 30 years, I find it clear that public concern about climate change has evolved dramatically over the past three decades. In the U.S., now more than ever, it seems tied to ideology.

Knowing the facts

Does scientific literacy influence responses? Some psychologists think so. Indeed, some surveys show that Europeans have significantly greater scientific knowledge about the causes of climate change than Americans.

It’s possible that such knowledge translates into a sense of responsibility for mitigating climate change. But having more general scientific knowledge is not as relevant as knowing specifically about climate change.

A person’s outlook on the world can also complicate matters. Another recent Pew survey found that Americans are more likely to believe they control their own destiny and that they “tend to prioritize individual liberty, while Europeans tend to value the role of the state to ensure no one in society is in need.”

Research on the respective roles of scientific literacy and worldview reaches different conclusions. Psychologist Sophie Guy and colleagues argue that knowing the causes of climate change makes people more willing to accept the reality of climate change or to moderate their ideological opposition to it.

Nuisance flooding – flooding from ordinary high tides exacerbated by sea level rise and accompanying land subsidence – has increased 400 percent in Charleston, South Carolina since 1960. Stephen B. Morton/AP Photo

By contrast, Yale scholar Dan Kahan and colleagues find that people with the highest level of scientific literacy often use that literacy to retain and justify prior beliefs – what they call the “polarizing impact of science literacy.” In other words: “I’m smart, I’ve read the evidence and it confirms my prior understanding.” Climate change reflects a threat not only to one’s local environment, but also to one’s worldview.

Political affiliation

When you look more closely at recent survey responses in the U.S., the most striking and consistent finding is that political affiliation influences perceptions of climate change.

In the U.S., Democrats report, at consistently higher rates than Republicans, that climate change exists. Merely substituting the term “global warming” – now a politically charged catchword – for “climate change” makes the differences larger.

The divide between parties within the U.S. far exceeds the divide found between the U.S. as a whole and Europe. Political divisions also exist in Europe, and public opinion polls in the U.K. and Norway show that party similarly influences the perceived threat of climate change. However, there’s some evidence that the U.S. Republican Party is anomalous among conservative parties internationally. In other words, U.S. Republicans are more starkly anti-climate change than other conservative parties internationally.

It’s possible that the strong two-party system in the U.S. leads to a more binary mode of thinking on this issue that does not accurately represent that of the scientific community. Sociologist Aaron McCright and his colleagues argue that the high number of Americans identifying with the political right explains why the U.S., unlike other wealthy countries, is less concerned about climate change.

Closing the gap

Some suggest that the political divide has fueled an industry of climate change deniers and skeptics, distorting public perception about climate change science. Science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway argue in their book “Merchants of Doubt” that denial is about more than the science. It’s about political and economic systems that individuals hold dear. It also can result from differences in professional culture or personal values.

In the U.S., many of the most vocal skeptics and deniers of climate change emerge from conservative think tanks that revere the industrial capitalist system.

In Europe, differences between countries can also be explained by the voices of conservative think tanks and the media, but these voices are more influential in the U.S. than anywhere else because of the two-party system. Partisan clashes about climate change emerge from influential, well-funded sources that wield great influence on Congress, the media and ultimately the public. By contrast, most European countries have more than two parties, and arguably the political influence of corporations is lower.

Given the political divide on climate change in the U.S., addressing this 21st-century threat will require creative thinking that recognizes different worldviews and “beliefs” in climate change. The U.S. House Climate Solutions Caucus is a step in the right direction.


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Comments 1 to 8:

  1. Good article, but missed a few things.

    Firstly there is indeed evidence that more educated people in America are more sceptical of climate change. Its very disappointing and counter intuitive.

    However education may still be be a factor in this denial in another way. The following study finds standard of climate change education in schools in america is very poor, so smart generally people may not be getting enough basic information on which to make informed decisions:

    Politics is clearly a factor as the article says, with strident views and a strong partican divide in America. Its a very combative sort of system that is causing steep divisions more so than Europe it seems, and The Republican Party is becoming increasingly entrenched and irrational in its views on certain well known matters. However some European countries do have deep divisions as well. 

    But it goes further, as almost all Americas political parties are further to the right than Europe with Europes parliament and citizens being demonstrably more accepting of environmental laws, government role in the economy, and climate science in general. (Thats not to say Europe gets everything right either, and right size of government is a delicate balance)

    The denialist think tank movement appears very strong in America with strong fossil fuels influence. America has long been an oil and coal producer. Some European countries rely more on nuclear energy or gas fired generation so you dont get quite such powerful fossil fuel lobby influence perhaps.

    America is a strongly christian country. This website has discussed how fundamentalist and evangelical christians tend to be climate change sceptics. Europe is a little more towards atheism. However overall I would not see religion as a huge factor in the climate issue, with many christians in the middle accepting we are causing climate change.

    For me personally adding these things together is enough to explain higher climate scepticism in America.

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  2. Climate disinformation is paid for by the fossil fuels industry and targeted to populations that can make a difference affecting policy.  I don't think the difference between American and European perceptions need stem from anything more than this: Americans are the target of a propaganda effort because they matter more than Europeans in keeping fossil fuels 'open for business' around the World.  At the very least, the US military can be purposed to protect fossil interests the World over much more easily if the US public perceives this to be in its interest.  Fossils is a huge industry in America, but not in Europe, so Americans are already predisposed to accept denial propaganda.  Russia's meddling in US elections shows that targeting critical population groups in swing states like Wisconsin can yield huge benefits, like Donald Trump.  I just think fossil disinformation has been similarly targeted, and the disparity across the Atlantic Ocean is the result.

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  3. I would like to know more about how the various political entities in Europe have picked up and advocated for climate change response as a political policy.  I suspect there there's a strong reaction dynamic at play in US politics where because Democrats advocate for climate change policies so stridently, to the point of demonizing Republicans or conservatives who oppose it, people in those groups push back more on the political aspect and party line division rather than on any scientific basis.  As in most issues in US politics, perhaps if there was more dialogue on both sides, more people would be convinced?  These days, I think people react more to the messenger than the message itself, and advocates of climate change policies would be wise to depersonalize their arguments, and stop attacking the intelligence of skeptics. In my own search for more information, I'm surprised at how many mainstream sources never talk about the science, they just reference how most scientists believe man-caused climate change is occurring - if you're not willing to present an actual fact-based, scientific argument, than don't be surprised if people reject your policies in a reactionary manner.  I applaud some sites, like this one, for keeping the discussion fact based and discussion oriented.

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  4. As this is your first post, Skeptical Science respectfully reminds you to please follow our comments policy. Thank You!

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  5. ddost4827@3 said: "...there's a strong reaction dynamic... because Democrats advocate for climate change policies so stridently... demonizing Republicans... [so] people in those groups push back more on the [politics]...."  Given human nature I'm sure that's a part of what's going on.  It does seem illogical, however, to punish your descendents because you hate your contemporaries. 

    When society becomes strongly divided on a particular issue, policy change is delayed, which favors the status quo, which in this case is fossil fuels.  So there's a strong motivation within America's energy status quo to keep the country divided on this issue.  Whereas Europe, having to import much of its fossil fuel, is less likely to be influenced by a strong local industry acting to protect itself.

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  6. ddost4287 @3

    "Democrats advocate for climate change policies so stridently, to the point of demonizing Republicans or conservatives who oppose it, people in those groups push back more"

    I suspect you are right to some extent. The trouble is Republicans advocate just as stridently on other matters, and have  demonstrably and provably shown very little desire for bipartisan arrangements. Trump is the extreme example.

    Perhaps both sides need to "pull their horns in" but its hard to see how this will happen. The Democrats generally say look at the science, and other reputable evidence, on economic, social and environmental matters. I find it hard to see anything wrong in that position.

    "I'm surprised at how many mainstream sources never talk about the science, they just reference how most scientists believe man-caused climate change is occurring - if you're not willing to present an actual fact-based, scientific argument, than don't be surprised if people reject your policies"

    Yes it would be good to get a more detailed list of evidence for climate change in the general media. However their purpose is more to bring us the latest news and general opinion, they cant be a tutorial session especially on complex issues. The IPCC reports are all available online for free for the sceptics to read, but I suspect they just dont want to know the truth. They prefer to latch onto whomever is making the most noise and telling them its all a hoax, people like Christopher Moncton, Rusch Limbaugh and Donald Trump, etc.  I dont actually live In America but I see this happening.

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  7. Fossil fuel advocacy is a large part of the problem and delays progress, but ideology is also a factor. You see some of Americas climate deniers coming out with plenty of rhetoric on personal liberty, as an excuse to avoid laws that they dont like. 

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  8. ddost4827:

    I suspect there there's a strong reaction dynamic at play in US politics where because Democrats advocate for climate change policies so stridently, to the point of demonizing Republicans or conservatives who oppose it, people in those groups push back more on the political aspect and party line division rather than on any scientific basis.

    This is a straw man argument. Individual Democrats who 'advocate for climate change policies so stridently' may get pushback against themselves. Blaming those particular obnoxious Democrats for the refusal by "Republicans and conservatives" to discuss any climate change policy at all, doesn't help with "keeping the discussion fact based and discussion oriented". 

    I'm not convinced ddost4827 is actually interested in dialogue.

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