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Majority of Americans agree that anthropogenic climate change is happening: will we be fairly represented in Paris?

Image credit: Mikael Miettinen (creative commons license)


By Sasha Wright, Mary Seeburger, and Willa Tsokanis

This week I invited my FIT students, Mary Seeburger and Willa Tsokanis, to co-write a piece with me about education, public opinion, and climate change.  We have been discussing these topics extensively in recent weeks and, as always, my students have expressed their frustration at apparent political inaction despite clear science, and now, public sentiment.


With the international climate talks (COP21) wrapping up their first week in Paris, the whole world seems to be talking about climate change.  Since 1992, international delegates have come together annually to discuss the scientific consensus on the climate, the expected impacts on the world, and how international efforts may help curb these impacts.  In the past these efforts have failed for a variety of reasons: lack of accountability, unfair expectations for developed vs. developing nations, and skepticism about climate science in general.  This year there seems to be a renewed sense of hope: the potential for a series of legally binding commitments for all countries involved.  Taken together these national commitments could add up to an international effort that successfully saves humanity from the catastrophic impacts of a warming climate.


Many of the delegates have already made commitments that they are expected to bring back to their home countries and implement as national laws.  If everyone follows through on their commitments, we will all collectively win.  If any nation defaults – particularly those with high carbon emissions or those who play the leaders on the world stage (China, USA, India) – we all lose.  The ultimate prisoner’s dilemma.


While the international players play poker in Paris, we should refocus the conversation on a more important question: do the Paris talks represent us as citizens of these nations?  

For a growing number of people worldwide there is no need for a “risk assessment”, there is just clear science and clear action needed.  In fact, for the first time in history, the majority of Americans consistently recognize (“believe”) that climate change is happening and that it is primarily man-made.  As recent work in PLoS One highlights, this trend has been difficult to detect, but is now clear.


The public sentiment about climate change in the United States has changed greatly in the past 20 years.  We have gone from a people arguing about whether the climate is warming at all, to a people arguing primarily about whether human activities are the main cause.  Importantly, both of these components are necessary to inspire action: if the climate is warming but the cause is mostly natural (sun cycles and orbital changes) then we can’t modify our behavior in order to affect change.  The earth is warming, we’re all going to die, and there is nothing we can do about it.  We might as well live large in the meantime.  But if climate change is the result of human activities, our behaviours may make all the difference.

Photo from London climate change march. By Alisdare Hickson (creative commons license).
Photo from London climate change march. By Alisdare Hickson (creative commons license).

As Hamilton et al. discuss in their work, published in September in PLoS One, a relatively rapid change in the conversation has made it difficult to track actual public opinion over time.  For example, survey questions that once asked participants about the reality of “global warming” are now outdated.  The term global warming gives the impression that all areas on earth are consistently warming: a fact that can be easily disputed during a particularly cold winter in Minnesota. The identification of culturally and scientifically relevant survey questions has become incredibly important.  And if we don’t have access to these same survey questions from 15 years ago, we can’t accurately represent the change in public sentiment over time using data.   


As the authors of this study discuss, a modern survey should ask participants a series of questions that separately identify participant sentiment about (1) the reality of “global climate change” and (2) whether climate change is primarily man-made.  As such, Hamilton and colleagues implemented the following survey question within four of the most extensive and widely distributed surveys in the United States between 2010-2015:


Which of the following three statements do you personally believe?

  • Climate change is happening now, caused mainly by human activities.
  • Climate change is happening now, but caused mainly by natural forces.
  • Climate change is NOT happening now.

Among the national surveys, the authors found that 53% of Americans agree that climate change is happening now and it is mainly caused by human activities.  

This result is similar to the results from 2012 and shows a small increase in public agreement since 2011 – when 52% of Americans agreed with this sentiment.  There are also clear divisions amongst political parties, with the most recent estimates at >70% of Democrats agreeing with anthropogenic climate change, ~50% of Independents, and ~30% of Republicans.  

Perhaps most surprisingly, there are also politically-oriented differences in how education affects our opinions about man made climate change.  Both Democrats and Independents tend to increase their acceptance of anthropogenic climate change with increasing education: from high school, to college, to graduate school.  Surprisingly, this is not true for people who self-identify as Republicans.

In fact, increasing education can sometimes decrease belief in man-made climate change amongst Republicans.

On first glance this result seems dire.  For those of us in education, we’re committed to the idea that improving access to information is the best way to affect the most positive change in the world.  This result, like many before it, indicates that group-oriented biases can trump access to information.  Whereas the internet can serve as a way to democratically spread information to everyone, it can also serve as a tool to aggregate like-minded individuals over great geographic distances, collect ideas that support your preconceived understanding of the system, and filter out dissent.  These data demonstrate that access to information is important, but it might not be enough.

From Hamilton et al. (2015) in the journal PLoS One.
From Hamilton et al. (2015) in the journal PLoS One.

In fact, breaking these arbitrary boundaries between groups is likely also necessary – the so-called “contact hypothesis.”  If we can increase contact between different groups of people (e.g. Democrats and Republicans) we can decrease prejudice expressed between and among those groups.  As climate science has become a more and more partisan issue, Democrats and Republicans may see their opinion on climate science as more of an indication of the group they belong to, as opposed to a reflection of their access to information or their understanding of the problem itself.  

The solution, then, is not as dire as it first seems: we just have to talk to each other.  Particularly those people in our lives we might disagree with most.  Maybe easier said than done.


As the climate talks wrap up their first week in Paris there are some great indications of progress: a commitment from the African Development Bank to invest billions in developing clean energy technologies in the developing world, the emergence of prominent city leaders joining each other in a sub-national climate agreement, and a massive $1 billion investment from Bill Gates to commit towards solving the climate crisis.  Of course there is still dissent here at home in the United States, but with rising indications that this dissent is not representative of American interests, we are hopeful that the climate talks in Paris will yield real results.  And that for the first time in history, we are on the verge of making the changes needed to protect ourselves from the most serious crisis humanity has ever faced.


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