Even now, only half of Americans believe humans cause climate change.
That finding, from a new Ipsos poll, illuminates a yawning gap between public opinion and science on perhaps the most important scientific question of our time.
Forty-nine percent of Americans believe climate change is caused mostly by human actions, the survey found, the lowest share reported in several years of polling.
In other words, a narrow majority of the country disagrees with the nation’s scientists, nearly all of whom are certain that humans cause global warming. Twenty-seven percent of Americans say climate change is natural. Seven percent say the climate isn’t changing. Most other respondents say they aren’t sure.
The disconnect between popular opinion and scientific fact on global warming stems from an age-old partisan divide, climate experts say, and reflects the opposing stances of scientists and oil companies.
“Virtually all of climate science is on one side of this issue because they’re actually looking at the evidence,” said Edward Maibach, distinguished professor and director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. “The other side of the issue is driven, essentially, by the fossil fuel industry, and their friends in the conservative media, and their friends in conservative politics.”
The global debate on climate change began in the 1980s, and positions have shifted as the globe has warmed.
In the early years, scientists, politicians and pundits argued over whether global warming was real. Nowadays, with mounting evidence of rising temperatures and sea levels, harsher weather, stronger storms, melting glaciers and rampant wildfires and droughts, most “climate deniers” defend a different position: Climate change is indeed happening, but we aren’t to blame.
“The conversation seems to be changing,” said Heidi Roop, assistant professor and director of the Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership at the University of Minnesota. “It becomes harder and harder to ignore the extreme weather events and the billion-dollar disasters that we’re coping with across the country.”
A sizable share of the nation, however, has not been swayed. A respected climate-change poll, conducted by Yale and George Mason universities in December, found that 70 percent of Americans believe in global warming. Sixteen percent said they did not. A smaller share wasn’t sure.
The same poll reports 58 percent of Americans believe global warming is caused mostly by human activities.
That number is higher than the one in the Ipsos poll. Still, it suggests science has yet to convince much of the American public to accept blame for global warming.
One recent scholarly analysis of 3,000 scientific studies on climate change found only four papers that voiced doubt about the human role in global warming.
“We use the word ‘unequivocal,’” Roop said. “It’s unequivocal that humans have warmed our oceans, our atmosphere and our lands.”
Yet, many Americans beg to differ.
“Very few of us take the time or even know how to look at the original research, to see what the truth is,” Maibach said.
Behind the numbers looms a vast partisan divide.
In a 2019 Pew survey, only 14 percent of conservative Republicans said they believe human activity contributes “a great deal” to climate change. Eighty-four percent of liberal Democrats voiced the same view.
In the new Ipsos poll, 75 percent of Democrats opined that climate change is caused mostly by humans. Only 22 percent of Republicans agreed.
The split “is being fed by the culture wars, and by those who find the climate narrative a perfect foil for what they view as a kind of ‘woke’ America,” said Frank Sesno, director of strategic initiatives at the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University.
“If you don’t want to believe this because you’re in that ideological and media ecosystem, then you won’t.”
Oil and gas companies have long allied themselves with Republican politicians, a bond that honors the party’s historic support for business interests and its strength in fossil-fuel states. Of the 20 Congress members who received the most donations from oil and gas interests last year, 17 were Republicans.
But rank-and-file Americans of both parties are growing more concerned about climate change. Polls show most people have experienced its effects firsthand in the form of extreme heat, violent storms, frequent flooding and seemingly endless wildfires.
“It’s obvious that climate change is real, and it’s happening, and we are witnessing that,” said Sayanti Mukherjee, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University at Buffalo. “There was a season for wildfires. Now, there is no season.”
It’s no surprise, perhaps, that citizens of California, Oregon and Washington State are more likely than other Americans to believe global warming is real.
But global warming believers also abound in Texas, a classic red state. Seventy-two percent of Texans acknowledged global warming in 2021, matching the national average, according to a Climate Opinion Map from Yale. In hurricane-battered Florida, 73 percent of residents accepted climate change.
Climate advocates see other rays of hope.
Young people are much more likely than older Americans to care about global warming, even among Republicans. Forty-seven percent of Republicans under 30 say the government is doing too little on the environment, according to Pew data, compared to 18 percent of Republicans over 65.
And while the nation may be divided on global warming, most Americans want the government to do something about it.
Four-fifths of voters support federal funding for more research into renewable energy, according to Yale-George Mason polls. A similar share support generating renewable energy on public land. Roughly three-quarters of voters favor tax incentives for energy-efficient vehicles, solar panels and green appliances.
“We’re getting so much further because we’re telling people what they can have, rather than telling them what they need to stop doing,” said David Kieve, president of EDF Action, an advocacy arm of the Environmental Defense Fund.
The Inflation Reduction Act, signed last year by President Biden, doesn’t sound like a climate-change initiative. But the measure marks “the most significant action Congress has taken on clean energy and climate change in the nation’s history,” according to a White House summary.
The new law aims to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions nearly in half by 2030, with investments in clean electricity, clean-energy incentives and tax credits.
It comes at a dire moment. Researchers now say it’s more likely than not that Earth will cross a critical global-warming threshold in the next four years, with average temperatures rising 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“It’s very unfortunate that our climate has become a victim of the culture wars,” Maibach said, “because our climate doesn’t care whether we are liberal or conservative.”