Americans believe climate change is occurring, but disagree on why: report

April 19, 2011

Most Americans now agree that climate change is occurring, but still disagree on why, with opinions about the cause of climate change defined by political party, not scientific understanding, according to new research from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

Republicans most often point to natural causes of climate change while Democrats most often believe that human activities are the cause. The greatest polarization occurs among people who believe they have the best understanding.

"Although there remains active discussion among scientists on many details about the pace and effects of climate change, no leading science organization disagrees that human activities are now changing the Earth's climate. The strong scientific agreement on this point contrasts with the partisan disagreement seen on all of our surveys," said Lawrence Hamilton, professor of sociology and senior fellow with the UNH Carsey Institute.

"However, most people gather information about climate change not directly from scientists but indirectly, for example through , political activists, acquaintances, and other nonscience sources. Their understanding reflects not simply , but rather the adoption of views promoted by political or opinion leaders they follow. People increasingly choose news sources that match their own views. Moreover, they tend to selectively absorb information even from this biased flow, fitting it into their pre-existing beliefs," Hamilton said.

A series of regional surveys conducted by Carsey Institute researchers in 2010 and early 2011 asked nearly 9,500 individuals in seven regions in the United States about climate change.

Key findings include:

  • Most people say that they understand either a moderate amount or a great deal about the issue of or climate change.
  • Large majorities agree that climate change is happening now, although they split on whether this is attributed mainly to human or natural causes.
  • Level of understanding about climate change varies considerably by region.
  • Beliefs about climate change are strongly related to political party. Republicans most often believe either that climate is not changing now or that it is changing but from mainly natural causes. Democrats most often believe that the climate is changing now due mainly to human activities.
  • Political polarization is greatest among the Republicans and Democrats who are most confident that they understand this issue. Republicans and Democrats less sure about their understanding also tend to be less far apart in their beliefs.
  • People who express lower confidence also might be more likely to change their views in response to weather.
"If the scientists are right, evidence of will become more visible and dramatic in the decades ahead. Arctic , for example, provides one closely watched harbinger of planetary change. In its 2007 report the IPCC projected that late-summer Arctic sea ice could disappear before the end of the 21st century. Since that report was written, steeper-than-expected declines have led to suggestions that summer sea ice might be largely gone by 2030, and some think much sooner," Hamilton said.

"We will find out in time—either the ice will melt, or it won't. The Arctic Ocean, along with other aspects of the ocean-atmosphere system, presents an undeniable physical reality that could become more central to the public debate. In the meantime, however, public beliefs about physical reality remain strikingly politicized," he said.

Explore further: Despite polarized opinions, Democrats and Republicans perform same amount of 'green' actions

More information: The complete report about this research is available at … mate-Change-2011.pdf

Related Stories

Arctic heats up more than other places

January 16, 2009

Temperature change in the Arctic is happening at a greater rate than other places in the Northern Hemisphere, and this is expected to continue in the future.

New Ice Age maps point to climate change patterns

January 19, 2009

( -- New climate maps of the Earth’s surface during the height of the last Ice Age support predictions that northern Australia will become wetter and southern Australia drier due to climate change.

Recommended for you

New magma pathways after giant lateral volcano collapses

October 23, 2017

Giant lateral collapses are huge landslides occurring at the flanks of a volcano. Giant lateral collapses are rather common events during the evolution of a large volcanic edifice, often with dramatic consequences such as ...

Scientists warn that saline lakes in dire situation worldwide

October 23, 2017

Saline lakes around the world are shrinking in size at alarming rates. But what—or who—is to blame? Lakes like Utah's Great Salt Lake, Asia's Aral Sea, the Dead Sea in Jordan and Israel, China's huge Lop Nur and Bolivia's ...

Mountain glaciers shrinking across the West

October 22, 2017

Until recently, glaciers in the United States have been measured in two ways: placing stakes in the snow, as federal scientists have done each year since 1957 at South Cascade Glacier in Washington state; or tracking glacier ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (6) Apr 19, 2011
This is total Baloney. Nobody does the research for themselves, they rely on uneducated journalists.

You can check arctic sea ice here. Right in line with average...

4 / 5 (4) Apr 19, 2011
This is total Baloney. Nobody does the research for themselves, they rely on uneducated journalists.

You can check arctic sea ice here. Right in line with average...


Yeah, I checked out that site. Um, they only present data back to 2002, so it's hard to compare to what it was like say, 25 years ago. Also, even in the 9 years of data shown, there is a trend towards less sea ice (compare 2002 to 2011). But yeah, if you look at only a narrow time span it sure looks like the amount of sea ice isn't changing much...
4 / 5 (5) Apr 19, 2011
Regardless of whether climate change is occuring due to natural causes or the nasty crap we're pumping into the air, I would like to stop having to breath said junk. When the air is popularly described as 'chewy' there are too many polutants in it. Whether those polutants are enough to cause climate change doesn't have to be the driving force for cleaning it up. In the long run doing things in a cleaner, more efficient fashion reduces waste and can potentially make things cheaper.
3.3 / 5 (4) Apr 19, 2011
"Whether those polutants are enough to cause climate change doesn't have to be the driving force for cleaning it up."

I think you're right on with this statement. Personally, the jury is still out on Anthropomorphic Global Warming. I've seen very convincing data that points to the most plausible explanation, the sun, the largest energy source in our solar system. Regardless we must address the pollution and by extension corporate greed if we really wish to affect change. I will say my biggest issue with Man-made Global Warming. If Al Gore and his ilk are right, why is their solution to tax (cap and trade, carbon tax) people to fix it? And is there a conflict of interest if he stands to make millions with the development of such tax? And at what point has Climate Change become a political issue and not an environmental one?
2.7 / 5 (3) Apr 19, 2011
Gaia needs to break wind...
1 / 5 (2) Apr 20, 2011
Republicans and Democrats less sure about their understanding also tend to be less far apart in their beliefs

Ironically, the people who really know the most about any science are the ones who correctly understand that we don't know nearly as much as most people think we know about most things. Could the people with no strong opinion have the best opinion?

I personally read more about the topic than is probably healthy, and I don't think the length of observational records is long enough to draw strong conclusions about how much influence humans are having. I have a big pet peeve with that line of reasoning though, since it is absolutely moronic to lump all aspects of human influence into one great big black box called "climate change". That term is too vague. To talk intelligently about it, you need to break it down to specifics then you can begin to talk about cause and effect, durration and magnitude.

There's no "sides" in science. There is true, false and unknown

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.