At the macro level, most Americans believe climate change is real; but on the micro level, there is confusion

By Benjamin Hulac | 04/07/2015 08:03 AM EDT

The majority of Americans believe climate change is real and are worried about its effects, but fewer than half think it is primarily caused by human activity, according to a paper published yesterday in Nature Climate Change. Even fewer — about 4 in 10 — believe there is broad consensus within the scientific community that the planet is steadily warming.

The majority of Americans believe climate change is real and are worried about its effects, but fewer than half think it is primarily caused by human activity, according to a paper published yesterday in Nature Climate Change. Even fewer — about 4 in 10 — believe there is broad consensus within the scientific community that the planet is steadily warming.

National views obscure distinctions on the state and local levels, according to the study, which compiles more than 12,000 survey responses broken down by state, congressional district and county.

"In some ways, I feel like someone has given me a microscope for the first time," Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and a co-author of the report, said in an interview with ClimateWire, emphasizing the rarity and expense of opinion polling on the local scale. "We can see so many more patterns that are going on at the state and local levels."


The study corresponds to an interactive map by the Yale research group — a compilation of 13 surveys by the Yale team and the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication conducted between 2008 and 2014.

Sixty-three percent of Americans believe the planet is getting hotter, 52 percent worry about global warming, and 61 percent feel it will harm future generations either a great or moderate amount.

More than 70 percent support funding renewable energy technologies and regulating carbon dioxide emissions, while at least 6 in 10 would like to see stricter regulations on coal-fired power plants and want utilities to generate at least 20 percent of their electricity through renewables. Even 44 percent of those polled would back a carbon tax if the proceeds were refunded to private households.

Perhaps in an indication of industry-backed research, like the work done by Wei-Hock Soon, or the long-standing response from conservative congressional Republicans that climate science is not broadly settled in academic circles, 41 percent of Americans believe "most scientists think global warming is happening" and 34 percent think "there is a lot of disagreement," though the vast majority of climate scientists maintain that the Earth is warming largely due to fossil fuel consumption (ClimateWire, Feb. 24).

In several states with strong ties to the coal, natural gas and oil businesses — Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wyoming — roughly two-thirds of residents responded that scientists do not agree on the basics of global warming.

Many worry; fewer are convinced

However, of the 3,143 counties surveyed, more than 50 percent of residents do not believe in global warming in just 75 counties. (Only 43 percent of the residents of Trimble County, Ky., the lowest ratio nationwide, believe in global climate change, while more than 80 percent in Washington, D.C.; Alameda County, Calif., which includes Berkeley and Oakland; and the New York City borough of Manhattan think climate change is real.)

"Much of the country is still very confused about that fact," said Leiserowitz, referring to the existence of climate change. Nevertheless, he said, most support renewable energy policy.

"There is no county in America where the majority of people don’t support moving forward on clean energy," he said. "Even in the Deep South. Even in the heart of West Virginia."

The results uncover a country divided by politics, education and geography.

City-dwellers are likely more concerned about climate-driven impacts than their rural counterparts, and, regionally, the residents along the Eastern Seaboard and the West Coast show greater concern about climate change.

"Politics absolutely is playing a role in this," said Peter Howe, the report’s lead author and an assistant professor of environment and society at Utah State University, "but it’s not the only thing that’s going on."

Interactive map
What is your state thinking about climate change? Click here to view the interactive map. | Photo by Peter Serling, courtesy of Julia Wolfe.

Hispanic Americans and immigrant communities are likely behind an uptick along Texas’ southern border favoring climate policies.

"What we strongly expect we’re seeing there is the effect of Latinos," said Leiserowitz, noting that the trend could appear in Colorado, New Mexico and other Western states.

"They’re much more engaged than any racial or ethnical group in America," he said of Latinos, adding that Latino Catholics are also notably engaged among religious groups and acknowledging that the reason is unclear. "This is one of the things that we don’t actually know the answer to."

Large college towns, too, show up on the national map as "bright spots" for those in favor of regulating emissions, Howe said, and give sharply distinct answers from adjacent counties.

Residents of Tompkins County, N.Y., which includes Cornell University and Ithaca College, are 10 percent more likely to say the believe in climate change than residents of the surrounding counties. Champaign County, Ill.; Dane County, Wis.; Johnson County, Iowa; Travis County, Texas; and Washtenaw County, Mich., which each encompass large public universities, show a similar trend.

A Gallup poll from late March seems to contradict the colleges-and-climate notion, showing a trend that the Gallup survey authors wrote suggests "that higher levels of education reinforce core partisan positions" (ClimateWire, March 27).

About 75 percent of Republican college graduates contacted by Gallup responded that the seriousness of global warming was "generally exaggerated" in the news media, compared with 57 percent with a high school education or less who said the same; the same poll found 27 percent of high school-educated Democrats and 15 percent of college graduates said warming trends were exaggerated.

"Party affiliation more so than education plays the dominating role in the American public’s attitudes about global warming today," the Gallup survey reads. "Education does not mitigate the partisan divide in beliefs about global warming but instead strengthens it."

Threatened counties worry least

Crisp data detailing public opinion on climate change at the state and local levels can be an asset to local officials, Utah State’s Howe said.

Officials fighting wildfires in Western states could use the study’s data — which will be updated with national surveys that come out twice a year — to see if the communities they’re protecting understand the risks of living in a fire-prone area, for example, Leiserowitz said.

Some of the country’s regions that are most exposed to the impacts of climate change — rising sea levels, inland flooding, increasingly common forest fires, shrinking crop yields — are also home to citizens who are not particularly worried about those threats.

Many counties in the country’s breadbasket region, where states employ a high percentage of workers in the agriculture sector and higher temperatures can lead to higher costs and lower output, reported that they weren’t concerned about global warming.

And the results from municipalities in Appalachia, where a pivot away from coal-centric business could hammer the local economy, indicates most residents are not perturbed by future climate threats.

"These are areas that you might think are concerned about climate change but are, in fact, not," Leiserowitz said of Gulf of Mexico regions, singling out the Louisiana coast.

Of the 11 counties that touch the Gulf, more than half of the residents in just one county — Orleans Parish with New Orleans in its jurisdiction — said they worry about climate change.