Summary

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing discussing American perceptions of climate change as awareness and concern for its impacts continues to rise among the electorate. The latest polling indicates seven in ten Americans say climate change is happening, and a majority feel their member of Congress should be doing more to address this global issue.

The presentation delved into recent work from the polling sector, including what Americans really think about climate change policy, how mainstream reporting has adapted its coverage of climate issues over the years, and how voter attitudes towards climate change and clean energy may influence the 2016 election cycle. Polling trends at both the national and state level were discussed, as Dr. Maibach explored the gap between the data and real-world experiences in measuring public opinion.

  • Professor Edward Maibach, Director, Center for Climate Change Communication (4C), George Mason University, reviewed the results of 14 joint George Mason University/Yale University surveys carried out between November 2008 and March 2016.
  • It is clear that a majority of Americans think global warming is happening.
    • In the latest March 2016 poll, 70 percent of those surveyed said global warming is happening (the high was 71 percent in November 2008). The number of Americans who think global warming is happening hasn't fallen below 57 percent over the 2008-2016 period, and has generally hovered in the mid-sixties.
    • 11 percent of respondents said global warming isn't happening (compared to a low of 10 percent in November 2008, and a high of 23 percent in November 2013).
    • There is, however, a lot of uncertainty. Only 4 in 10 Americans are extremely sure global warming is happening, and less than 1 in 10 are extremely sure it isn't happening.
  • Only half of Americans think that global warming, if it is happening, is mostly the result of human activities.
    • This share has stayed relatively stable over the eight-year period examined, with a peak of 57 percent in November 2008 and lows of 46 percent in March 2012 and November 2013.
    • A third of Americans think that global warming is mostly the result of natural variations.
  • Only a tenth of Americans know that an overwhelming majority (90+ percent—a consensus) of climate scientists have concluded that global warming is happening and is human-caused.
  • Most Americans perceive global warming as a distant threat.
    • 41 percent believe they will be personally harmed by climate change, compared to 70 percent who believe climate change will harm future generations.
    • Only 16 percent of March 2016 respondents say they are "very worried" about global warming. Another 42 percent are somewhat worried.
  • Very few Americans (6 percent) are optimistic that humans can and will reduce global warming.
    • About half (47 percent) believe humans could reduce global warming, but it is unclear whether they will actually take action to do so.
    • Fewer than 4 in 10 respondents think the American people can convince Congress to pass ambitious legislation to reduce global warming.
  • Six in 10 Americans say the issue of global warming is at least somewhat personally important to them.
  • Professor Maibach noted that there are indications suggesting that an increasing number of Americans think global warming is happening, especially conservative Republicans. It is too early to tell, however, whether this trend will be durable.
    • The share of conservative Republicans who say global warming is happening has risen from 28 to 47 percent between April 2014 and March 2016.
    • As a whole, 56 percent of Republicans say global warming is happening (up from 40 percent in April 2014).
    • Over a one-year period (March 2015 to March 2016), there has been a six-point rise in the share of Americans (38 percent) who say that people in the United States are currently being harmed by global warming.
  • Professor Maibach discussed the "Francis Effect," or how Pope Francis's declarations changed American perspectives on climate change. In particular, more Americans say that global warming is a moral and social justice issue (39 and 24 percent, respectively), in addition to an environmental issue (77 percent). These changes in perception are not limited to Catholics, but apply to the nation as a whole.
  • One of the pollsters' key findings is that public support for clean energy and climate action is stronger than public understanding of climate change. Large majorities of registered voters support clean energy policies.
    • 84 percent of registered voters support more funding for renewable energy research (91 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans).
    • 81 percent support tax rebates for people who purchase energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels (91 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans).
    • 75 percent support regulating carbon dioxide emissions (88 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Republicans).
    • A large majority (70 percent) of registered voters support setting strict carbon emission limits on existing coal power plants. But only 37 percent of conservative Republicans support such action (as opposed to 67 percent of liberal/moderate Republicans and 67 percent of Independents).
  • Most Americans want corporations, Congress, their state and local governments, and citizens themselves to do more to address global warming. 74 percent want companies to do more (including 56 percent of Republicans), and 62 percent want Congress to do more (but only 38 percent of Republicans).
  • Americans, by a 3 to 1 margin, are more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who strongly supports action to reduce global warming. Inversely, Americans are significantly less likely (by a 4 to 1 margin) to vote for a presidential candidate who strongly opposes action to reduce global warming.
  • Professor Maibach identified "Six Americas" when it comes to global warming: the Alarmed (17 percent), Concerned (28 percent), Cautious (27 percent), Disengaged (7 percent), Doubtful (11 percent), and Dismissive (10 percent). The Alarmed have the highest conviction that global warming is happening and are the most concerned and motivated. They take actions as consumers: punishing and rewarding companies based on their climate actions. The Dismissive are the least concerned and motivated.
  • There are four key tenets about climate change that affect how a person will behave:
    • 1) It's real
    • 2) It's us (human-caused)
    • 3) It's bad (for people)
    • 4) It's solvable
  • Knowing that experts agree that human-caused climate change is happening is a "gate-keeper" conviction that determines whether one accepts the four above tenets.
  • The formula for effective campaigns is: simple clear messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted voices.
  • Professor Maibach invited attendees to view Yale's Climate Opinion Maps at https://environment.yale.edu/poe/v2014/, which break down climate survey results by state, county, and Congressional district.
  • During the Q&A session, Professor Maibach provided more details about the survey findings:
    • Age. According to their national survey data, Millennials do not care more about global warming than other age cohorts. However, in the most recent survey, Republican Millennials expressed more concern about global warming than other Republican age groups. This may be a blip, or represent a new development. Also, a large survey conducted this summer in Maryland by Karen Akerlof clearly indicates that Millennials do care more about global warming than other age cohorts.
    • Gender. Women tend to care a little more about global warming than men, but the gender gradient is not very large. The "Dismissive" largely tend to be white males.
    • Income. The "Disengaged" segment is the only one that is starkly different, from an income perspective (they are much more likely to be economically disadvantaged). Those in both extremes, "Alarmed" and "Dismissive," are a little more likely to be economically advantaged.
    • Race. African Americans clearly care more about global warming than Caucasians, and Hispanic Americans care more than non-Hispanic Americans.
    • Climate Change vs. Global Warming. Most Americans consider both terms to be synonyms, and are comfortable with both. But a more granular analysis shows a slight difference: conservatives are by and large more comfortable with the term climate change because it doesn't imply a human cause.
    • Coastal Residents. Residents of coastal states are much more concerned about climate change, but those tend to be predominantly Democratic areas. Other studies have shown that people can actually notice the impacts of climate change in their own backyards, even when they are mundane and gradual.
    • Willingness to pay for climate action. This question has only been asked occasionally in GMU/Yale surveys. In 2010, respondents were asked if they would be willing to pay 50 cents a day ($180 a year) for climate policies being considered by Congress. Support for climate action actually increased when given this relatively modest price tag. Many studies have shown the public's willingness to pay; on average, it seems well aligned with projections of what policies would actually cost each individual.

 

Dr. Maibach has been a professor at George Mason University, where he co-founded the Center for Climate Change Communication (4C), since 2007. His research focuses on what mobilizes populations to adopt behaviors and support public policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help communities adapt to climate impacts. From 2011 to 2014, Dr. Maibach co-chaired the Engagement & Communication Working Group for the Third National Climate Assessment, and he currently advises various organizations on their climate change-related public engagement initiatives.

The Center for Climate Change Communication is a non-partisan organization that conducts unbiased social science research to identify opportunities to enhance public understanding of and engagement with climate change. Mason 4C, in conjunction with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, has conducted two national surveys a year since 2008, providing a valuable perspective on how public attitudes toward climate and environmental issues have shifted over time. Through its partnerships with government agencies, associations, and businesses, 4C advances climate education through consortia and training programs