Americans Don’t Care What Scientists Think About Climate Science

The U.N. has big news on climate change, but the public won’t be listening.

National Journal
Patrick Reis and Marina Koren
Aug. 20, 2013, 10:04 a.m.

Sci­ent­ists from the world’s premi­er cli­mate-change re­search pan­el are pre­par­ing to once again prom­ise the world that they be­lieve — in fact, they’re really pretty sure — that hu­man be­ings are caus­ing glob­al warm­ing.

But if past is pro­logue, the new re­port will do ex­actly noth­ing to in­crease the Amer­ic­an pub­lic’s con­fid­ence in man-made cli­mate change.

The United Na­tions In­ter­gov­ern­ment­al Pan­el on Cli­mate Change next month will re­lease its latest as­sess­ment of the state of the sci­ence on cli­mate change. And in a draft of the re­port that leaked last week, the pan­el of more than 800 ex­perts states they are now 95 per­cent to 100 per­cent con­fid­ent that hu­man activ­ity is to blame for glob­al warm­ing.

The up­com­ing re­port is part of a string of re­leases by the sci­entif­ic com­munity prom­ising the pub­lic that there’s near-con­sensus on cli­mate change. Earli­er this year, a sur­vey found that 97.1 per­cent of 12,000 stud­ies pub­lished between 1991 and 2011 im­plic­ated hu­man activ­ity in rising glob­al tem­per­at­ures.

But amid the sci­entif­ic push, the past half-dec­ade has seen pub­lic con­fid­ence that cli­mate change is real and caused by hu­mans — de­pend­ing on whom you ask — either plat­eau or slightly de­cline.

In the Pew Re­search Cen­ter’s 2006 poll on wheth­er Amer­ic­ans be­lieve hu­man activ­ity is caus­ing glob­al warm­ing, 47 per­cent of the pub­lic hewed to the sci­entif­ic con­sensus. But when Pew asked again this March, only 42 per­cent were on board.

And in Stan­ford Uni­versity’s long-stand­ing poll of cli­mate opin­ions, faith in cli­mate change is on the wane as well. In 2006, 85 per­cent of re­spond­ents said they be­lieved glob­al tem­per­at­ures were in­creas­ing (the sur­vey didn’t ask wheth­er that warm­ing is hu­man-in­duced). This year, that fig­ure fell to 82 per­cent, and it was down to 73 per­cent in 2012. 

The grow­ing gap is alarm­ing, but hardly sur­pris­ing. As they eval­u­ate glob­al warm­ing, most people aren’t thumb­ing through U.N. re­ports or call­ing their loc­al cli­mate sci­ent­ists. In fact, there’s mass mis­un­der­stand­ing over what sci­ent­ists think about glob­al warm­ing: In Pew’s 2012 sur­vey, few­er than half of all re­spond­ents thought sci­ent­ists gen­er­ally be­lieved hu­man activ­ity is heat­ing the globe.

In­stead, people are get­ting their cli­mate cues from their pre­ferred me­dia out­lets and elec­ted of­fi­cials. And so, the pub­lic’s cli­mate-change con­fid­ence is di­vorced from cli­mate sci­ence and in­creas­ingly wed­ded to the polit­ic­al de­bate.

In 2013, only about one in five Re­pub­lic­ans told Pew they thought hu­man activ­ity should be blamed for glob­al warm­ing, while nearly nine out of 10 Demo­crats thought the two were con­nec­ted. And that dis­par­ity will likely be ex­acer­bated as Amer­ic­ans in­creas­ingly tail­or their me­dia con­sump­tion to out­lets that re­in­force their preex­ist­ing be­liefs.

But cli­mate sci­ent­ists hop­ing to bring the pub­lic around to their point of view may find a bright spot in the most re­cent sur­vey num­bers: Pub­lic opin­ion has re­boun­ded since its 2009-10 nadir.

In 2010, while the cap-and-trade cli­mate bill was dy­ing a slow death on the Sen­ate floor, only 34 per­cent of re­spond­ents told Pew they be­lieved in hu­man-made glob­al warm­ing, but that fig­ure has in­creased in every Pew sur­vey since.

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