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Does the Public Really Believe Humans Are Causing Climate Change?

Jul 05, 2011

Power PlantAre public attitudes about climate change shifting? Do people believe the planet is getting warmer and that humans are the cause? A look at recent research shows that people worldwide who are aware of climate change tend to go along with that "consensus" view, although opinions are changing when it comes to at least one cantankerous bunch: Americans. (Photo Credit: eutrophication&hypoxia)

Worldwide Viewpoints: Are Human Activities Causing Global Warming?

Interestingly, a Gallup survey of adults in 111 countries in 2010 found that 36 percent of respondents simply aren't aware of global warming. Most recognize global warming, though; 35 percent blame human activities, 14 percent attribute it to natural causes, and 13 percent think it is caused by both. (See "Worldwide, Blame for Climate Change Falls on Humans.")

The picture varies considerably when you look at Gallup's figures from different regions.

Developing countries have large percentages of respondents who are not even aware of global warming, 48 percent in developing Asia, 49 percent in the Middle East and North Africa, and 54 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. In those countries, people who know about global warming tend to blame human activities.

In the developed world, awareness is much higher.

In developed Asia, a whopping 76 percent of respondents think global warming is caused by human activities; only 12 percent blame natural causes, and 7 percent blame both.

Respondents in Canada and Western Europe are more or less in agreement. Those blaming human activities come to 54 percent in Canada and 49 percent in Western Europe. Those blaming natural causes come to 24 percent in Canada and 23 percent in Western Europe.

Public opinion on climate change, various statistics

The results from the United States contrast overall with the developed world. In the U.S., only 34 percent say that rising temperatures due to climate change are caused by human activities; 47 percent attribute the phenomenon to natural causes; 14 percent think it is both. The authors of the Gallup report say that "Americans' attitudes in 2010 mark a sharp departure from 2007 and 2008, when they were more likely to blame human causes."

Respondents in the United Kingdom polled fairly close to their cousins in the U.S., 37 percent blaming human activities, 39 blaming natural causes, and 18 percent unsure.

Australia: Climate Change Giving Way to Other Worries

Public policy on climate change is an especially contentious issue in Australia right now, and very recent figures are available on public opinion there.

The results of a survey recently released (June 2011) by the Lowy Institute for International Policy of Sydney, Australia, finds that 41 percent of Australians think "global warming is a serious and pressing problem and that we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs." This percentage has been declining since 2006, though. (See "Australia and the world: public opinion and foreign policy.")

Australia opinion trends on climate change

The most skeptical position that "until we are sure that global warming is really a problem, we should not take any steps that would have economic costs" has steadily climbed to 19 percent in the 2011 results, nearly tripling since 2006. Those who express this cautious view tend to be older. (The trend chart above is reproduced courtesy of the Lowy Institute for International Policy.)

In the 2011 survey, 40 percent of respondents express the more moderate view that "the problem of global warming should be addressed, but its effects will be gradual, so we can deal with the problem gradually by taking steps that are low in cost." This view has risen from 24 percent in 2006.

Lowy's figures show that "tackling climate change" was one of the top concerns of Australians in 2007, even eclipsing international terrorism and strengthening the country's economy. The climate change issue has steadily lost ground since then and now ranks 10th in the survey's list of foreign policy goals, below "Helping countries in our region to reduce poverty," "Promoting Australian businesses overseas," and "Improving Australia's relationships with its immediate neighbors in the Pacific."

Americans' Growing Skepticism About Climate Change

In its "Global Views 2010" American public opinion poll, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs structured some of its questions in a similar manner to the Lowy Institute's Australia survey.

In the American survey, the middle-ground view polled close to the Australian figures, with 42 percent of respondents agreeing that "The problem of climate change should be addressed, but its effects will be gradual, so we can deal with the problem gradually by taking steps that are low in cost."

However, more Americans than Australians express the skeptical view, with 26 percent agreeing that "Until we are sure that climate change is really a problem, we should not take any steps that would have economic costs."

29 percent agreed with the statement that "Climate change is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs." This response was 12 points lower than on the Australia survey.

As in Australia, Americans' views on the climate change issue have shifted since 2008, with more respondents moving to the moderate or skeptical view. In the poll for that year, only 17 percent felt unsure that climate change was a real problem, and 43 percent thought it was a serious and urgent problem. 30 percent were in the middle ground. The Council's survey questions in 2008 used the wording "global warming" instead of "climate change."

Out of a list of 19 foreign-policy goals, Americans now rank "Limiting climate change" as 14th, below "Strengthening the United Nations," "Combating world hunger," and "Safeguarding against global financial instability."

This is not to say that Americans don't care about the environment, the report's authors emphasize:

[W]hen asked to choose between two statements about the environment and economic growth, 56 percent of Americans say that protection of the environment should be given priority even at the risk of curbing economic growth, rejecting the idea that economic growth should be given priority even if the environment suffers to some extent.

The report also says,

To address climate change, strong majorities favor creating tax incentives to encourage the development and use of alternative energy sources such as solar or wind power; requiring automakers to increase fuel efficiency even if this means the price of cars would go up; and building nuclear power plants to reduce reliance on oil and coal...

The report also finds that 67 percent of Americans think the U.S. should participate in a new treaty to mitigate climate change through reduction of greenhouse gases.

The U.S. poll finds considerable contrast in the views of Democrats and Republicans. For example, 48 percent of Democrats think climate change is a critical threat, versus 16 percent of Republicans. When it comes to participating in a new climate-change treaty, 85 percent of Democrats favor such a move as opposed to 50 percent of Republicans.

The Brookings Institution's National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change studies whether Americans believe in global warming at all. The group's most recent survey, released in April 2011, finds that belief in global warming in the U.S. has declined since 2008.

In Fall of 2008, 72 percent of Americans agreed that "There is solid evidence of global warming." That figure had dropped to 58 percent by Fall of 2010. 26 percent say there is no solid evidence, and 16 percent aren't sure.

US trends in climate change opinion

By contrast, Brookings finds that 80 percent of the U.S.'s Canadian neighbors think there is solid evidence for global warming, with only 14 percent disagreeing and 6 percent not sure.

Like the Chicago Council, Brookings finds a strong correlation between Americans' views on global warming and their political affiliation. Among Democrats, 69 percent believe global warming is occurring; only 16 percent don't. Among Republicans, only 41 percent believe in global warming; 43 percent don't. Among independents, 56 percent believe, 31 percent don't; figures for Tea Party members resemble those for independents.

Earth Scientists: Most by Far Blame Human Activity

Sky with cloudsWhat about earth scientists? Do they believe that global warming is real and that human activity is to blame? (Photo Credit: monkeyatlarge)

Peter T. Doran, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois in Chicago, along with Maggie Kendall Zimmerman, released in 2009 the results of a survey of Earth scientists on these questions (see "Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change"; abstract available here). Out of the 3,146 respondents, 90 percent were from U.S. institutions, 6 percent from Canada, and 4 percent from institutions in other countries.

When asked, "When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?," 90 percent answered "Risen."

When asked, "Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?," 82 percent answered "Yes."

Out of the scientists who specialize in climate science, 96.2 percent answered "Risen" and 97.4 percent answered "Yes." The specialists who answered "Yes" to the second question in smallest numbers were economic geologists (47 percent) and meteorologists (64 percent).

Earth scientists aside, why are public perceptions about the existence and cause of climate change shifting? Why do we see such differences between nations and geographic regions? I plan to examine these questions in a future article.