Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook or subscribe to his email newsletter.
Climate change may seem like a complicated issue, but it’s actually simple if you understand five key facts, according to Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.
They are: 1. It’s real. 2. It’s us. 3. Scientists agree. 4. It’s bad. And: 5. There’s hope.
Yet, far too few Americans get it.
That became more painfully apparent to me this week when Yale University researchers released data and maps that detail American attitudes on climate change. The data, which are based on surveys and modeling by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, do show there is broad agreement in the American public on the solutions needed to fight climate change and usher in the clean-energy era. The most striking example: majorities of people in every single congressional district support setting strict limits on carbon dioxide pollution from existing coal-fired power plants, according to the research. And this despite the fact that many Republicans and US President Donald Trump say they want to ax an Obama-era regulation – the Clean Power Plan – that aims to do just that.
Still, there remain big pockets of climate confusion – perhaps denial – across the country, especially when it comes to climate science. Narrowing this info gap is particularly critical now since President Trump has denied the science of climate change and has promised to enact policies that can be expected to dirty the air and intensify warming.
To that end, here is a geographic look at five key climate facts.
Explore more of this data on the website for the Yale Climate Opinion Maps.
1. Climate change is real
Seven in 10 Americans say, correctly, that the world is warming up. This fact is getting harder to deny as annual temperature records continue to fall year after year (2016 was the hottest year on record; 16 of the top 17 hottest years have occurred since 2000). Majorities of people in nearly every US county understand this point. Scientist have measured about 1 degree Celsius of warming since the Industrial Revolution, when humans started burning fossil fuels.
2. Humans are causing the Earth to warm
Whether humans are causing warming is more contentious with the American public, even though the science on this is settled – and has been for some time. Humans are causing global warming by polluting the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide. These gases act like a blanket in the atmosphere, trapping heat and causing gradual warming over time. Most of the pollution comes from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. The amount of pollution is staggering: Fossil fuels produce more than 36 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution per year, according to the Global Carbon Project. Chopping down tropical forests also contributes to climate change since those forests pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. In recent years, researchers also have identified food waste – throwing out uneaten food – and diets that are high in beef and lamb as important contributors to global warming. The reasons are complex, some having to do with cow burps (which contain methane) and also with the emissions associated with farming practices.
People in the Great Plains, Mountain West, as well as some of those in the Deep South and Rust Belt regions are more likely than those on the coasts to say they doubt the science that says humans are causing global warming. Still, slightly more than half of Americans, according to the Yale research, say correctly that humans are responsible for climate change.
3. Scientists agree on these points
Even fewer Americans understand this critical fact: Nearly all climate scientists agree that the planet is warming and that humans are mostly responsible because we’re polluting the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases. The most commonly cited number is 97%, meaning 97% of climate scientists agree humans are causing warming – and have for years. “Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97% or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities,” NASA says on a website devoted to the “scientific consensus” on global warming. “In addition,” the site continues, “most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.”
Only 49% of Americans surveyed by Yale said “most scientists think global warming is happening.” And there are pockets of the United States where only about a quarter of people understand that scientists agree on this.
4. Climate change is bad
Sometimes people learn the above three facts – climate change is real, it’s caused by us, and there is broad scientific agreement about all of this – and they still say, not illogically, that a little warming doesn’t sound so bad. The Paris Agreement on climate change aims to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius. What’s 2 degrees of warmth?
The trouble is that when you learn the mechanics and consequences of runaway climate change, you realize that 2 degrees really is that bad – and that any further warming could reasonably be termed catastrophic. At 2 degrees of warming, for example, some small island countries, like the Marshall Islands, which I visited in 2015, are expected to be submerged beneath rising seas. As the oceans warm and land-based ice melts, sea levels are rising. Already, low-lying American cities like Miami Beach, Florida, are raising street levels and installing pumps to keep the water back. Runaway warming could bring about mass extinction in the natural world, wicked droughts, deadlier heatwaves, bigger wildfires, more-intense storms and more. Think of it as risk management. Extreme warming could end life as we know it. Yet, we can avoid that future – and the unfair burden it places on future generations – with some simple changes.
5. There are smart ways to fix global warming
Americans are in broad agreement when it comes to climate fixes.
In the map above, for instance, you can see that 82% of Americans support funding for research and development on renewable energies like wind and solar power. The dark red colors show areas of the country where support for this sort of research is incredibly high, and there are no areas of the country where most people oppose the research into clean energy sources like wind and solar. Most Americans – 69% – also support strict CO2 limits on coal-fired power plants; and three-quarters want CO2 regulated as a pollutant. These policies are much closer in line with the Obama administration’s actions than with President Trump’s rhetoric. Trump’s “America First Energy Plan” envisions a return to dirty fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, all of which contribute to climate change and also are known to contribute to a range of health problems, from asthma attacks to death. “The public does want this transition to clean energy – and they want to start it now,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, a senior research scientist and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Yet, almost no one talks about climate change
How can we citizens spread factual awareness about climate change?
One answer is simple: talk about it.
Only about a third of Americans have conversations about climate change. “You get this downward spiral of nobody discussing it,” Leiserowitz told me. “The fact that we don’t hear about it all that often – including from the news media – and because we don’t talk about it with our friends and our families and our social networks – then therefore it’s not that important, or can’t be that important, because if it was we’d all be talking about it.”
Learn the facts. And help break that cycle.