Attitudes on Climate: Steady and Somewhat Sure

New numbers from Yale and George Mason's Six Americas research.
This post is part of the research project: Word on the Street

Here are highlights from the latest Six Americas research conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. The survey was in the field in late April and early May 2011 and the takeaway is that opinion is basically holding steady, even as media coverage of the issue is down and as we limp through the recession.

To me, with a few glaring exceptions, it seems like a fairly healthy baseline of belief in the problem (of course I hold expectations in check to keep my sanity).

Of course the glaring exceptions hit right where it counts–notably, that Americans have bought into the disinformation that there is “a lot of disagreement among scientists” about human-caused global warming. Additionally, while 43 percent say they’re “somewhat worried” about global warming, a paltry 9 percent says they’re “very worried.”

Also troubling, though not necessarily surprising, is that only five percent said that they agree that “humans can reduce global warming, and we are going to do so successfully,” while 41 percent (a plurality) said they believe “humans could reduce global warming, but it’s unclear at this point whether we will do what’s needed” and a full quarter said “we could reduce global warming, but people aren’t willing to change their behavior, so we’re not going to.”

  • 64 percent believe global warming is happening (up three points since June 2010), while belief that it is caused mostly by human activities declined three points, to 47 percent.
  • The number of Americans who worry about global warming held stable at 52 percent, while the number of Americans who said that the issue is personally important to them dropped three points, to 60 percent.
  • Since June 2010, public understanding that most scientists think global warming is happening rose 5 points, to 39 percent, while 40 percent of Americans continue to believe there is a lot of disagreement among scientists.
  • For the first time, the survey asked Americans to estimate what proportion of climate scientists think global warming is happening. Only 13 percent get the correct answer (81 to 100%), while 31 percent say they don’t know. Likewise, only 15 percent correctly understand that the great majority of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities, while 32 percent say they don’t know.
  • Roughly half of all Americans say that global warming is already causing or making the following events worse in the United States: coastline erosion and flooding (52 percent); droughts (50 percent); hurricanes (49 percent); rivers flooding (48 percent); and wildfires (45 percent).
  • Only 45 percent of Americans say they have thought some (33 percent) or a lot (12 percent) about global warming, a drop of 10 points since June 2010 (perhaps reflecting major declines in media reporting on the topic).
  • At the same time, 52 percent of Americans say they would like more information about global warming – an increase of 5 points since June 2010.
  • Levels of trust in television weather reporters, the mainstream news media, and scientists as sources of information about global warming have also dropped since June 2010 (by 9, 7, and 5 points respectively).Overall levels of trust remain high, however, for scientists (76 percent) and for federal agencies that deal with climate change, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (76 percent); the National Park Service (73 percent); the Center for Disease Control (69 percent); the Environmental Protection Agency (62 percent); and the Department of Energy (59 percent). President Obama is trusted as a source of information on global warming by 46 percent of Americans, while only 36 percent trust their own US Congressman/Congresswoman.

As usual, people are more concerned about “future generations” than themselves. They are more worried about flora and fauna–and even their own pets–than their communities or families when it comes to harm from climate change.

But overall, the researchers point out that these upward and downward shifts in public beliefs and attitudes are relatively small, compared to the larger declines that occurred between the fall of 2008 and January 2010, marking a period of relative stability in public attitudes and concern. Still, they point out, public understanding of climate change – and public engagement in the issue – remains quite a bit lower than it was in 2008.

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  1. civiletti says:

    Great information. It’s about as bad as I expected, though I expected more erosion in concern over the past few years than the study found. That’s good – at least. With the tepid concern among the public and the intense PR and political efforts by fossil fuel profiters, though, I do not expect much effective change in the near future. It’s going to take a lot more drowned islands, tornado and hurricane destruction, heat waves and droughts before political will in the US develops to make substantial changes. By then, the next few centuries are likely toast – literally.

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