State of the State: Global Warming Ideas Are Shaped by Political Beliefs

Jul 1, 2012

Jamey Dunn
Credit mattpenning.com 2014 / WUIS/Illinois Issues
Americans’ opinions about global warming are ever-changing and seem to be shaped in part by their political beliefs, the economy and their perceptions of the scientific community. 

A March study from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications found that since November 2011, the percentage of Americans who believe that global warming exists increased slightly, from 63 percent to 66 percent. The survey polled about 1,000 people and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. However, the number of people who said they believed in global warming has dipped significantly from 2008, when 71 percent of respondents said they thought the climate was getting hotter. 

Of those who said they believed in global warming in 2012, 53 percent said they were “extremely sure” or “very sure” of their belief, while 47 percent said they were “somewhat sure” or “not at all sure.” Compare that with 2008, when 72 percent said they were “extremely sure” or “very sure,” and only 28 percent said they were “somewhat sure” or “not at all sure” of climate change. 

But those who believed that climate change was not occurring seemed to hold steady or become more certain about it. In 2008, 54 percent of those who said global warming is not happening said they were “extremely sure” or “very sure,” and 46 percent said they were “somewhat sure” or “not at all sure.” In 2012, 56 percent fell in the “extremely sure” or “very sure” categories, and 43 percent were “somewhat sure” or “not at all sure.” 

And, although the percentage of those who believe global warming is happening has increased slightly during the past year, the portion of those who believe that it is primarily caused by human action has dropped. In 2011, 50 percent of respondents said they believed that global warming was caused mostly by human actions, but in March 2012, the number had decreased to 46 percent. In 2008, 57 percent believed that global warming was caused primarily by humans. 

The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication conducted a 2011 survey that placed Americans into six categories when it comes to belief and concern over climate change. Twelve percent of Americans fell into the “alarmed” category, 27 percent were in the “concerned” category, 25 percent were in the “cautious” category, 10 were percent in the “disengaged” category, 15 percent were in the “doubtful” category and 10 percent were in the “dismissive” category. That study also had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Most Americans also say they generally trust scientists when it comes to climate change, with 74 percent saying they trust climate scientists and 65 percent saying they trust other types of scientists. The presidential candidates do not fare as well. According to the March 2012 survey, 47 percent say they trust President Barack Obama as a source of information about global warming, while only 21 percent trust his challenger, Mitt Romney on the issue. Trust in Romney on the topic has decreased by 5 percentage points from last year. 

Yet, the majority of scientists, approximately 97 percent, according to the Yale project, believe global warming is happening. 

“The consensus statement is that the climate changes that are being observed are certainly real, they seem to be increasing and that humans are most likely the cause of all or most of these changes,” Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences told National Public Radio. the National Academy of Sciences, the National Meteorological Society, the American Chemical Society, the American Physical Society and the Geological Society of America are part of a long list of scientific groups that endorse the idea that climate change is happening and is caused by humans, as are scientific organizations in China, the United Kingdom, India, Japan, Russia, France and Brazil, among other countries. 

So if Americans trust scientists on the topic of global warming, and the vast majority of scientists believe that climate change is happening and is largely human-made, why does public opinion keep changing? Why has the number of people who believe in global warming dropped so much in the last four years? And why do many of those who say they do believe in it also say they are uncertain? 

It could be because many Americans seem to think that global warming has not been widely accepted in the scientific community. Only 35 percent of Americans polled in the 2012 survey said that they believed that most scientists think that global warming is happening. That number is down by 6 percentage points from last year. The number of people who believe that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists on the topic, 41 percent, has increased by 2 percentage points from 2011. 

Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale University Project on Climate Change Communication, said that part of the reason Americans think that the scientific community is split when it comes to climate change is because those who do not want policy changes to address the issue are working to cloud the waters. 

“Well, there’s a couple things going on there. One, of course, is that the opponents of climate change action have very consciously and powerfully used doubt as their product. It’s a very classic term. In other words, they know that to forestall action, they just have to raise public doubts about the certainty of climate change. You know, if it’s not happening, then maybe we shouldn’t be taking any action. So it’s kind of [like] it gets people into a wait-and-see mentality,” he told NPR.

He said the other problem is the way the media report on global warming. “There’s been this long-standing critique of the way that the media actually reports this story, or certainly has reported the story over many years. And that is that reporters have often put, for instance, a climate change scientist to try to describe what climate change is and why there are serious risks about it, and then immediately pair them with someone who’s a climate change skeptic.

“And so the public hears these dueling scientists, these dueling views, and says: ‘Well, gosh, they must be split, 50-50.’ When, of course, in terms of those who actually do the science of climate change and publish in the legitimate journals, [they] are overwhelmingly in agreement that climate change is in fact happening and due primarily to human activity.”

Cicerone said it is human nature to lend credence to voices outside of the mainstream, and Americans in particular can be skeptical of conformity. “I think rooting for the underdog, the David against the Goliath, is something that we all do. I think it’s particularly American, although it happens everywhere.” But he said scientists are not inclined to jump on the bandwagon without solid proof because it is their job to constantly challenge ideas. “In fact, this is the way scientists work. Scientists don’t gain respect and attention and fame if you will be going along with the mainstream. And I don’t know many scientists who try to go along with the mainstream.”

Political beliefs and the state of the economy can also play into people’s perception of whether climate change is real. 

In a 2011 poll from the Yale project, 78 percent of respondents who identified themselves as Democrats said climate change is happening, and 71 percent of independents and 53 percent of Republicans agreed. Only 34 percent of Tea Party members said they thought global warming is happening. The majority of Democrats, 62 percent, also said they believed human behaviors were the primary cause of climate change. This issue is where the parties most clearly split, with only 43 percent of independents, 36 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Tea Party members saying that global warming is human-made. Fifty percent of Tea Party members said climate change is caused by natural fluctuations in the environment, and 21 percent said it has no cause because it is not happening. 

The economic collapse could also contribute to why some Americans, especially those on the right end of the political spectrum, have become more skeptical of climate change. 

From a 2011 Gallup analysis: “In Gallup’s 2000 environment poll, Americans overall favored the environment over the economy by a better than 2-to-1 margin (67% to 28%). At that time, all major demographic and attitudinal subgroups were strongly pro-environment. Now, all have moved rather dramatically toward a pro-economy position.”

According to Gallup, fewer Americans and Europeans saw global warming as a threat to themselves and their families in 2010 — after experiencing financial turmoil — than those who found it threatening in 2007 and 2008.

In America, Republicans prioritized economic development over the environment by a larger margin than Democrats in the wake of the financial collapse. “Some of the greatest shifts have come among groups on the political right. For example, in 2000, Republicans showed a 26-percentage-point gap in favor of the environment but now show a 55-point gap in favor of the economy, a total shift of 81 points. Conservatives show a total shift of 77 points toward the economic position. The changes have been smaller among left-leaning groups such as Democrats (38 points) and liberals (32 points).” The Gallup poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. 

And this change in attitudes about the importance of the environment may have led to the recent large rift between the political parties on the issue of climate change. 

People of different party affiliations also had varying opinions on what the scientific community thinks of global warming. In the Yale survey, 55 percent of Democrats said that most scientists think global warming is happening, while 56 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of Tea Party members said there is a lot of disagreement among scientists on climate change. Independents were generally split on the issue, with 46 percent saying most scientists believe it is happening and 40 percent saying there is a lot of disagreement. 

Leiserowitz said Americans’ perception of what the scientific community thinks of global warming seems to shape their own opinions. “So far, the evidence shows that the more people understand that there is this consensus [among scientists], the more they tend to believe that climate change is happening, the more they understand that humans are a major contributor and the more worried they are about it.”

Illinois Issues, July/August 2012