Making Sense of Americans’ Opinions About Climate Change

 JUL 7, 2015    by ZACHARY SCHUSTER

The folks who did the renowned “Six Americas” study are back with more interesting data on opinions toward climate change and climate change adaptation. The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has recently published a paper that breaks down opinions about climate change in the United States down geographically, from the national all the way down to the county level. And since their focus is on communication they have also developed a nice website to graphically present their data.    

I recommend going to the site and exploring the data that they provide.   

A few things stand out about the data they present. First, a majority (63%) of American think that “global warming” is occurring. And a plurality of Americans (48%) think that it is being caused by human influences. This is seemingly encouraging for those who are concerned about the issue of global warming.

There is however, a disconnect between the number of people who think that global warming is occurring and the number of people who believe “most scientists think global warming is happening.” There is a substantial consensus among scientists that climate change is occurring, indicating that there is a disconnect between the work the scientific community is doing and the way Americans are interpreting that work.  

The most fascinating results of the study are the differences in support for policies that would help mitigate climate change and for the idea that climate change is a thing and it is being caused by humans.

Take for example, the response to “Regulating CO2 as a pollutant” versus “Global warming is caused mostly by human activities.” 

Estimated % of adults who support regulating CO2 as a pollutant (72%), 2019. Source: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication
Estimated % of adults who think global warming is mostly caused by human activities (53%), 2019. Source: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

These two maps are seemingly baffling. What they seem to suggest is that a majority of people across the country express support for a policy regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant while also denying that global warming is caused by human activity.

These results are really interesting from a social science perspective because the first question about preferred policies implicitly elicits respondents’ values while the second one explicitly elicits them. One would expect the responses to be roughly the same, because asking about regulating CO2 as a pollutant is, in a way, asking if one acknowledges CO2 causes climate change. However, the responses are quite different, with 74% of respondents expressing support for the regulations, while only 48% say that they believe global warming is caused by humans.

The map of support for the acknowledgement that climate change is caused by humans shows area-wise, most folks deny that climate change is man-made, while support for that assertion is concentrated in a handful of areas. If you look nationwide, most of the support for the assertion that climate change is man-made is concentrated on the West Coast, liberal-trending Colorado and New Mexico, well-educated urban areas in the Midwest and mid-South, and the Northeast. In short, areas that tend to vote Democratic.

What this map shows, and what a McCright and Dunlap (2011) review of public polling (and what additional work by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication) found is that there is an identifiable partisan divide in terms of accepting the idea that climate change is occurring. Based on this polling, it is fair to conclude that climate change has moved from being a policy issue to a political issue.

Source: McCright and Dunlap, 2011

Another way of making this differentiation is provided by Mason (2015) in her paper on social and issue polarization. She defines social polarization as being motivated by “increased levels of partisan bias, activism, and anger … driven by partisan identity and political identity alignment.” Issue polarization is a similar dividing of the public based on preferred policy outcomes surrounding issues such as climate change.

Under this model, people’s political identities have become their social identities. Mason describes this particularly well:

Partisan identity should be understood here as a social identity, in line with prior work in political science (Campbell et al. 1960; Green, Palmquist, and Schickler 2002; Greene 1999, 2002, 2004; Iyengar, Sood, and Lelkes 2012; Mason 2013). This means that a partisan behaves more like a sports fan than like a banker choosing an investment. Partisans feel emotionally connected to the welfare of the party; they prefer to spend time with other members of the party; and when the party is threatened, they become angry and work to help conquer the threat, even if they disagree with some of the issue positions taken by the party. The connection between partisan and party is an emotional and social one, as well as a logical one.

The implications of this partisan divide and the development of climate change as partisan issue are important from the perspective of communicating about the issue. The McCright and Dunlap (2011) study mentioned above that reviewed ten years of Gallup’s annual survey on the environment also found that political ideology and political party identification both had a significant effect on beliefs about climate change.

Under an issue-based model, one would expect citizens to be swayed toward accepting climate change as occurring as more scientific information about the occurrence and potential impacts of climate change continues to be produced. However, the following quote from the McCright and Dunlap paper verifies Mason’s finding that social polarization is more powerful than issue polarization:

“New information on climate change (e.g., an IPCC report) is thus unlikely to reduce the political divide. Instead, citizens’ political orientations filter such learning opportunities in ways that magnify this divide. Political elites selectively interpret or ignore new climate change studies and news stories to promote their political agendas. Citizens, in turn, listen to their favored elites and media sources where global warming information is framed in a manner consistent with their pre-existing beliefs on the issue”

These two studies about the role that partisan identity plays in developing a person’s opinion provide an incredibly valuable insight into the discourse surrounding climate change that exists in the United States today. I would guess that we’ve all heard friends or colleagues wonder out loud about how people can deny that climate change is occurring. As Mason (2015) and McCright and Dunlap (2011) establish, it’s not because of a lack of intelligence, but rather because they are likely responding to the social norms of the political group that they identify with.

When communicating about the climate science work that we do, it is important to keep this knowledge in mind and seek to find a more favorable arena in which to communicate. As the county-level maps from the Yale group study show, there is widespread support of policies that would help address and mitigate climate change. The Mason (2015) study showed that issue allegiances are much weaker and emotional than social allegiances, so discussing climate change in terms of specific issues that folks are experiencing may lead to a much better discussion.

One example of this comes from a colleague from the Climate Boot Camp who was doing climate change research at a university in Texas. He related to us how when he was talking about his work with Texans, he always framed it in terms of “the drought” that Texas was experiencing at the time. This technique allowed him to communicate about climate change without his audience tuning him out because of their social identities.

Conversely, my research is studying the hydrology of cold-water fisheries that depend on cold thermal conditions for their health. Trout Unlimited is the major non-governmental stakeholder for the issue. Both the Trout Unlimited national organization and many of the members of the local chapters are aware of and concerned about the potential impacts of climate change on the thermal conditions of trout streams. In this case, not communicating about climate change could actually lead to a negative reception from this important group of stakeholders.

Like many things, the partisan divide surrounding climate change provides both a challenge and an opportunity. A much more receptive audience will likely be found if the impacts of climate change are communicated in terms of issues that stakeholders are experiencing and care about, whether it be drought, flooding, invasive species, or a loss of recreation. Not only will they be able to relate to your data better, but they will also be able to listen without their social biases interfering with what you are trying to say.

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