You could be forgiven for thinking the American public is deeply divided on climate change. After all, the United States elected Donald Trump, a man who has famously – and falsely – called climate change a “hoax.”
But it turns out Trump is out of step with both science and public opinion on this issue, which many experts consider to be one of the greatest threats of our time.
Climate change is real …
Scientists are in overwhelming agreement that the climate is warming because humans are pumping massive quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, primarily by burning fossil fuels for heat, electricity and transportation; chopping down rainforests; and consuming energy-intensive foods like beef and lamb. Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists say we’re largely to blame for global warming, according to peer-reviewed research.
American public opinion has been slow to catch up to these truths. But it is catching up. Seventy percent of Americans say climate change is happening; compared to only 13% who say it’s not real, according to a national poll of Americans released Wednesday by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. (The remaining percentage of respondents either said they did not know or did not answer the question).
The researchers interviewed 1,226 adults between November 18 and December 1, after the US presidential election. The percentage of Americans who say climate change is real is generally up from a low of 57% in 2010. It’s still slightly lower than the 71% who said climate change was real when this research started in November 2008.
… and we’re causing it
Donald Trump and other officials – including some of his picks for top environment and energy posts in the federal government – often deny or doubt the scientific reality that humans are causing the Earth to warm.
But, critically, a majority of Americans understand humans are responsible for climate change.
The Yale and George Mason researchers found 55% of Americans surveyed “understand that global warming is mostly human caused, which is the highest level since November 2008,” when the group started conducting comparable surveys. That compares to only 30% of those surveyed who said, incorrectly, that climate change is “due mostly to natural changes…”
The fastest growth in understanding? That comes from conservatives, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “The real movement is coming from Republicans and in particular among conservative Republicans,” he said. “The percentage [of conservative Republicans] is up 19 percentage points in the past couple years. That’s kind of remarkable.”
Americans underestimate how certain the science is …
The one thing the American public doesn’t seem to understand is that the vast, vast majority of climate scientists – 97% – agree the world is warming and human pollution is largely responsible.
Only 15% of those surveyed in November and December said they knew more than 90% of scientists agree on this important point. That’s up compared to previous surveys.
In March 2016, only 11% understood this.
Yet this single fact has incredible potential to sway those who are skeptical about climate science, according to Leiserowitz and others. “We find that people’s own estimate of the level of consensus goes up 19 points after getting the information” that nearly all climate scientists agree, he said.
It’s the kind of fact scientists and the media must repeat often.
… but realize we’re already affecting the weather
2016 is expected to be the hottest year on record, which would mean it was warmer than 2015 and 2014, the previous record holders. More Americans are waking up to the fact that human warming of the climate system already is shaping the weather. This follows advances in efforts to attribute “natural” disasters to human-caused global warming.
Scientists are now able to say events like the 2016 Louisiana floods, for example, which killed 13 people, are 40% more likely now because of climate change; and 10% stronger.
The Yale researchers found 60% of Americans say “global warming is affecting weather in the United States.” Yet only about one third of those polled say people are being harmed by it “right now.”
The public wants more from Trump and Congress
So far, we’ve simply addressed issues of fact. But American views also diverge from Trump’s when it comes to policy choices about what we should do about climate change – if anything at all.
Sixty-two percent of voters surveyed by Yale and George Mason shortly after the election said they want Trump to do more to address global warming. Sixty-three percent said the same of Congress.
“There seems to be a pretty strong or widening gap,” said Leiserowitz, the Yale researcher, “between peoples’ views about the reality of climate change, the seriousness of climate change and their desire for action on climate change – and what seems to be at this point the pretty strong agenda of the incoming Trump administration and the Republican Congress.”
Nearly 7 in 10 support the Paris Agreement …
Meanwhile, an even larger majority of Americans – 69% – say the US should support the Paris Agreement, an international treaty that sets the goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. To meet that goal, scientists say the world must become carbon neutral – essentially abandoning fossil fuels – by about mid- century, or shortly after.
More than 100 countries – including top polluters like the United States, China and India – have formally signed on to the agreement.
The public’s favorable view of the treaty is at odds with Trump’s rhetoric.
During the campaign, Trump said he would scrap the agreement. In a November interview with The New York Times, he appeared to moderate the stance somewhat, saying he will “have an open mind” to the agreement and that he is “looking at it very closely.”
… And nearly 80% support taxing and/or regulating carbon pollution
Taxing carbon pollution is seen by many environmental economists as the “holy grail” policy that could reduce pollution and help address the many problems associated with climate change. The idea is to use the market to punish activities that pollute – burning coal, oil and gas, for example – and by comparison reward cleaner choices, such as biking to work instead of driving, or using solar and wind power.
Some observers consider such climate policies to be political nonstarters. A carbon tax proposal narrowly failed by popular vote in relatively green Washington state in November, for example.
But perhaps that’s no longer true. The Yale and George Mason researchers found a stunning 78% of registered voters “support taxing global warming pollution, regulating it, or using both approaches.” Only about 10% of those surveyed opposed these approaches to fixing climate change.
But here’s the real question: Does it matter?
So it’s clear from this latest research that Trump is often out of step with climate science and with the public’s perception of climate science and polity issues. Knowing that is important, because it can often seem like global warming “skeptics” and “deniers” are dominating public discourse and politics.
They don’t dominate the American public, according to these surveys.
“Does that matter? That’s the real question,” Leiserowitz said.
Because here is another truth: Americans generally don’t care enough about climate change to vote based on the issue, according to Leiserowitz. “It’s very clear that this was not a climate-change election,” he said of the 2016 presidential contest. “In fact it wasn’t really any kind of issue election. It was an election between two really unpopular candidates and it was basically, ‘Who do you like least?’”
A Pew Research Center survey from May and June 2016 found that only 36% of Americans care “a great deal” about climate change – with 72% of them identifying as Democrats and 24% as Republicans.
So even if public attitudes get closer to the science, it’s unclear if or when that will translate into the kind of grassroots mobilization and lobbying that’s needed to shift the political discourse.
People are getting better about understanding climate change.
But perhaps they still don’t care enough about it.
CNN’s Sean O’Key contributed to this report. Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized a study on how opinions about global warming are formed. When people are exposed to the fact that nearly all climate scientists agree humans are causing climate change, their own estimates about the level of scientific consensus increases by 19 percentage points, not their belief in climate science.