Polls show climate beliefs gaining ground with conservative Republicans

By Umair Irfan | 10/07/2016 08:24 AM EDT

The majority of Americans think that climate change is happening and want their legislators to do something about it, according to recent polling.

The majority of Americans think that climate change is happening and want their legislators to do something about it, according to recent polling.

More than half of Americans believe that taking steps to fight climate change would improve health, protect ecosystems and leave a better world for future generations.

"This is something of a paradox, but public support for clean energy and climate action actually outpaces public understanding of climate change as a risk," said Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.


He presented his findings yesterday at an event on Capitol Hill hosted by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. The results came from a joint polling group at Yale University and George Mason University.

"This is a very, very important time in terms of thinking about how the world is perceiving climate change and the urgency with which it needs to be addressed," said Carol Werner, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.

Polls showed that 7 in 10 Americans think that climate change is happening to some extent, but respondents weren’t equally certain, nor did all of them think that humans are the dominant driver behind current levels of warming.

Only 40 percent said they were "very" or "extremely" sure that climate change is happening. About half of respondents said they were at most "somewhat" sure that temperatures are rising, and the remainder said they were certain that the climate isn’t changing.

These views emerged in spite of a vast consensus among climate change researchers that global average temperatures are on the rise and that human activity is the dominant cause (ClimateWire, Sep. 22).

"This is the product of a very smart, very sustained strategic communication campaign to convince Americans that there is a lot of disagreement among experts," Maibach said.

He noted that American’s belief in climate change has risen and fallen several times over the past decade as the issue gained and lost traction in public discourse. "My sense is public attitudes, public opinions are more stable now than they were in 2008," Maibach said. "In other words, I don’t expect to see this degree of waxing and waning going forward."

Polls also showed a strong partisan divide in beliefs in climate change, but the issue has gained vast ground among conservative Republicans, where the belief that the climate is changing increased from 28 percent in 2014 to 47 percent in 2016, the largest among all the political subsets polled.

"In the public opinion polling business, a 19 percent change in two years is really quite large," Maibach said. "I’m hopeful that it’s the beginning of a long-term and sustained trend, but it’s perhaps too soon to say."

Alex Bozmoski, director of strategy and operations for republicEn, a campaign launched by Republican former South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis that makes the conservative case for action on climate change, said his group has witnessed these shifts firsthand over the past two years as it has pitched its message across the United States.

"We see it in the heartland when we do programming on climate," he said.

Even among conservatives, several subsets have already concluded that climate change is an important issue that requires a policy response to some degree. "It’s a game of catch-up on the right as an aggregate. Young conservatives are already there. Conservative moms are already there. … All these groups that Republicans hope to court in the future are there," Bozmoski said.

At the moment, climate change has received scarce mention in the presidential and vice presidential debates in the run for the White House (ClimateWire, Oct. 5). However, the debate around President Obama’s signature domestic climate policy, the Clean Power Plan, continues to rage at state and local levels (ClimateWire, Oct. 6).