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
Marina Koren and Patrick Reis
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Marina Koren Patrick Reis
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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