What does America believe about global warming?

U.S. Climate Opinion

By Tessa Munson
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Estimated percent of adults who think global warming is happening, sorted by county. Provided by Yale University, 2018.

What do Americans think about global warming? That is one question research scientists Jennifer Marlon, Peter Howe, Matto Mildenberger, and Anthony Leiserowitz at Yale University have been working vigorously to answer since 2011. They have been gathering and analyzing data from across the country to develop a national climate opinion map. Among other concerns, the Yale Climate Opinion Maps relay data regarding the national perception about global warming: whether people believe it is happening, whether it is mostly human caused, whether most scientists believe it is happening and if they trust scientists about global warming.

It should be noted from the start that the terms climate change and global warming are not to be used synonymously. Global warming is not the same thing as climate change. In fact, global warming is just one symptom of the larger issue at hand: global climate change. Global warming is the phenomenon of which the earth’s temperature is gradually, yet persistently rising. Climate change is global warming, but it is also a lot more. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), climate change refers not only to the global warming phenomenon, but also to all of the other “side effects” of the earth’s temperatures rising. Some of these side effects include longer lasting droughts, ideal wildfire conditions, more frequent storm events that will be stronger and longer lasting, higher chances of floods, ocean acidification, glaciers melting, sea level rise, coastal erosion, the list goes on. In short, global warming is climate change. However, climate change is not only global warming, but it is also all of the symptoms that come along with the heating planet.

The general consensus across the nation is that 70 percent of Americans believe global warming is already happening, a statistic that has remained stagnant since Yale conducted the same climate opinion study in 2016. Of that 70 percent, 57 percent of Americans believe that global warming is caused mostly by human activities. This statistic is up 4 percent from 2016, when it was 53 percent. Further, 49 percent of Americans believe that most scientists think global warming is happening, which has remained the same since 2016. Lastly, 62 percent of Americans believe that global warming is affecting the weather, which was not asked during the 2016 survey.

The results in regards to risk perceptions are particularly telling. Out of the seven questions asked, more than half of the respondents answered in favor of global warming believability. However, one question received a score below the halfway point at only 41 percent: “Do you believe that global warming will harm you personally?” What this means is that most Americans are at least somewhat aware of the effects of global warming, but they don’t actually believe that it will affect their lives in some way.

Other factors, such as policy support, were also included in the study. One of the risk perception questions asked was whether people are worried about global warming. Not surprisingly, the areas with the highest concentrations of Americans worried about global warming are the areas already experiencing its effects. California and Hawaii are of the most concerned states in the west, while New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Massachusetts on the east coast are equally as worried. What is interesting to note about this category is that some of the states are heavily divided on the issue. For example, Southern Texas counties are quite worried about global warming, while the Northern Texas counties are much less so. That appears to be the case in both Florida and Virginia as well.

Some of the statistics on the map are a bit conflicting in certain areas. As a whole, the nation is mostly in agreeance that global warming is currently happening. However, with the exception of people in metropolitan areas and on the coasts, most of the nation does not believe that global warming is already harming people in the United States. This is of true concern, since there is striking evidence of global warming all around us, from coast to coast. From wildfires and intense droughts in California, to sea level rise and flooding in Florida, the effects of global warming are apparent if one is looking for them.

It may be difficult for people who live in rural areas far from the coasts to understand the impacts of climate change, in part because they are not as exposed to its effects. That is not to say that inland communities do not also play a vital role in the advancement of global climate change, it just may be more difficult for these communities to see the impacts. Coupled with national leaders who defy climate science, it is no wonder why people in middle America who do not personally see the effects of global warming and climate change choose not to believe in it. It is said that “seeing is believing,” and perhaps until all Americans can “see” global climate change happening in front of their own eyes, it will not be completely believed that it is occurring.

With respect to policy support, there appears to be a bit of a disconnect between currently available renewable energy technology and what Americans should do with federal climate policy. Nationally, 85 percent (up 3 percent since 2016) of Americans support funding more research on renewable energy sources, but only 63 percent (down 3 percent since 2016) support requiring utilities to produce 20 percent electricity from renewable sources. Part of this disconnect can be explained by individual financial burden because the question asks, “How much do you support or oppose the following policies? Require electric utilities to produce at least 20 percent of their electricity from wind, solar, or other renewable energy sources, even if it costs the average household an extra $100 a year.” Although Americans support the idea of using renewable sources to generate power, they do not want to have to pay more for the same service.

When it comes to personal behaviors, national statistics tend to shrink sizably. Only 36 percent (up 3 percent since 2016) of Americans admit to discussing global warming at least occasionally, and even less, only 22 percent (down 2 percent since 2016) of the nation hears about global warming in the media at least once a week. What is interesting about these statistics is that although Americans don’t tend to talk about global warming, or even hear about it in the media that often, the majority of Americans agree that global warming is already happening and that it is a phenomenon for us to worry about. What that says is that most Americans are doing their own research into global warming and climate change and are not blindly agreeing with and listening to what the federal officials say about it, without a skeptical ear. How do your climate beliefs and goals compare with the rest of the nation?

The Yale Climate Opinion Maps and more information can be found by visiting, climatecommunication.yale.edu.

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