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American attitudes about global warming

In most industrialized countries, global warming is considered to be a fact supported by not only personal observations, but also because of the scientific evidence. In fact, there is an overwhelming level of scientific consensus on this matter, including nearly every scientific organization in the United States. But the American mindset is quite different than the rest of the world. The reasons are many: conflating political debate with scientific debate, poorly understood economic trade-offs, badly written articles in online encyclopedias, reliance on confirmation bias, and just plain ignorance.

Yale and George Mason universities produced a survey on the American public’s beliefs and attitudes about climate change called, Climate Change in the American Mind: Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes (pdf file). According to the executive summary of the study,

Overall, Americans’ beliefs and attitudes about global warming have remained relatively stable over the past several months, with a few exceptions. There has been a slight increase in the proportion of people that believe global warming is happening and a slight decrease in the proportion that believe it is caused by mostly by human activities. There has also been a slight decrease in the proportion of people who believe that most scientists think global warming is happening; this decline is at odds with the widespread agreement among scientists that global warming is happening and primarily human caused. The public also overestimates the level of global warming disbelief in the United States.

Finally, in this election year, we find that approximately half of Americans (47%) trust President Obama as a source of information about global warming, which is essentially unchanged since November of 2011. By contrast, only 21 percent of Americans trust Mitt Romney on this issue and his level of trust dropped.

 Below are some of the more interesting results from the poll:

  • Respondents were presented with a definition of global warming as “the idea that the world’s average temperature has been increasing over the past 150 years, may be increasing more in the future, and that the world’s climate may change as a result”. They were then asked whether they thought that global warming is happening–66% said yes, 14% said no, 20% said they didn’t know. 
  • Respondents were then asked about the cause of global warming, on the assumption that it is happening–46% said it is caused mostly by human activities, 37% said that it is caused mostly by natural changes in the environment, 9% said it is caused by both human activities and natural changes, 5% opted for “none of the above because global warming isn’t happening.”
  • Next the respondents were asked for their views about what scientists believe–35% of respondents thought that most scientists think that global warming is happening, 3% thought that most scientists think global warming is not happening, 41% thought that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about global warming, and 21% said that they don’t know. 
  • Respondents were also asked to estimate what other Americans generally believed about global warming–38% believe that Americans think that global warming is happening due mostly to human activities (which is lower than what was found above), 25% agree that Americans believe global warming is happening due mostly to natural causes (slightly higher than the answer above), 21% think that Americans don’t believe that global warming is happening, and 20% think that Americans haven’t yet made up their mind about whether or not global warming is happening.

Well, this isn’t great news, because less than half of Americans accept that human caused global warming is happening. Hopefully, that changes over time, but the Republican party is so enmeshed into global warming denialism, that the US may never be able to reverse the damage done to the planet. Maybe there will be a more progressive and strong-willed Congress coming into power this year. One can only hope.

via Climate change in the American mind: March 2012 | NCSE.

Michael Simpson

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