Americans Don't Care What Scientists Think About Climate Science

Scientists from the world's premier climate-change research panel are preparing to once again promise the world that they believe—in fact, they're really pretty sure—that human beings are causing global warming.

But if past is prologue, the new report will do exactly nothing to increase the American public's confidence in man-made climate change.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change next month will release its latest assessment of the state of the science on climate change. And in a draft of the report that leaked last week, the panel of more than 800 experts states they are now 95 percent to 100 percent confident that human activity is to blame for global warming.

The upcoming report is part of a string of releases by the scientific community promising the public that there's near-consensus on climate change. Earlier this year, a survey found that 97.1 percent of 12,000 studies published between 1991 and 2011 implicated human activity in rising global temperatures.

But amid the scientific push, the past half-decade has seen public confidence that climate change is real and caused by humans—depending on whom you ask—either plateau or slightly decline.

In the Pew Research Center's 2006 poll on whether Americans believe human activity is causing global warming, 47 percent of the public hewed to the scientific consensus. But when Pew asked again this March, only 42 percent were on board.

And in Stanford University's long-standing poll of climate opinions, faith in climate change is on the wane as well. In 2006, 85 percent of respondents said they believed global temperatures were increasing (the survey didn't ask whether that warming is human-induced). This year, that figure fell to 82 percent, and it was down to 73 percent in 2012. 

The growing gap is alarming, but hardly surprising. As they evaluate global warming, most people aren't thumbing through U.N. reports or calling their local climate scientists. In fact, there's mass misunderstanding over what scientists think about global warming: In Pew's 2012 survey, fewer than half of all respondents thought scientists generally believed human activity is heating the globe.

Instead, people are getting their climate cues from their preferred media outlets and elected officials. And so, the public's climate-change confidence is divorced from climate science and increasingly wedded to the political debate.

In 2013, only about one in five Republicans told Pew they thought human activity should be blamed for global warming, while nearly nine out of 10 Democrats thought the two were connected. And that disparity will likely be exacerbated as Americans increasingly tailor their media consumption to outlets that reinforce their preexisting beliefs.

But climate scientists hoping to bring the public around to their point of view may find a bright spot in the most recent survey numbers: Public opinion has rebounded since its 2009-10 nadir.

In 2010, while the cap-and-trade climate bill was dying a slow death on the Senate floor, only 34 percent of respondents told Pew they believed in human-made global warming, but that figure has increased in every Pew survey since.