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Climate Change in the American Mind: March, 2016


1. Global Warming Beliefs

1.1. Seven in ten Americans think global warming is happening.

Americans who think global warming is happening outnumber those who think it is not by more than 6 to 1.

Seven in ten Americans (70%) think global warming is happening. By contrast, only about one in ten Americans (11%) thinks global warming is not happening.

The percentage of Americans who think global warming is happening has been rising steadily since March, 2015, and nearly matches its highest level (71%) since our surveys began in November, 2008.

Majorities of Americans across age, sex, education level, and political party think global warming is happening.

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Image for Seven in Ten Americans Think Global Warming is Happening

1.2. More than four in ten Americans are “extremely” or “very” sure global warming is happening. Fewer than one in ten are “extremely” or “very” sure it is not happening.

Forty-three percent of Americans are either “extremely” or “very” sure global warming is happening. Far fewer—6%—are “extremely” or “very sure” global warming is not happening.

The percentage who are sure global warming is happening has risen steadily in the past year, and is now at its highest level since January, 2010.

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1.3. Half of Americans think that if global warming is happening, it is mostly human caused.

The 2014 U.S. National Climate Assessment (written and reviewed by hundreds of climate experts over the course of four years) states: “The global warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels. Many independent lines of evidence confirm that human activities are affecting climate in unprecedented ways” (p. 15).http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/report

Public understanding of climate change, however, is very different than the conclusions of the nation’s climate experts. Currently, only half of Americans (53%) understand that global warming, if it is happening, is mostly human caused, a finding that has held steady since April, 2014. By contrast, one in three (34%) say it is due mostly to natural changes in the environment.

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1.4. Only about one in ten Americans understand that almost all climate scientists (more than 90%) have concluded human-caused global warming is happening.

A recent review study by John Cook and colleaguesCook, J., Oreskes, N., Doran, P. T., Anderegg, W. R. I., Verheggen, B., Maibach, E. W., Carlton, J. S., Lewendowsky, S., Skuce, A. G., Green, S. A., Nuccitelli, D., Jacobs, P., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R., & Rice., K. (2016). Consensus on consensus: A synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environmental Research Letters 11(4). doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/11/4/048002 found that all peer-reviewed studies about the extent of the scientific consensus about global warming have reached similar conclusions: between 90% and 100% of climate experts are convinced that human-caused climate change is happening. The most rigorous of these studies found that 97% of climate scientists are convinced that human-caused climate change is happening.

Only about one in ten Americans (11%) understand that nearly all climate scientists (more than 90%) are convinced that human-caused global warming is happening. About half (48%) of the American public believes that more than half of climate scientists think human-caused global warming is happening.Respondents were asked to estimate the percentage of climate scientists who have concluded that human-caused global warming is happening by moving a simulated “slider bar” which appeared on the screen of their computer. This slider bar allowed respondents to move a marker from one end to the other, where placing the maker all the way to the left recorded a “0%” response, all the way to the right a “100%” response, and any other whole number response at points in between.

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Public misunderstanding of the scientific consensus—which has been found in each of our surveys since 2008—has significant consequences. Other research has identified public understanding of the scientific consensus as a critical “gateway belief” that influences other important beliefs (i.e., global warming is happening, human caused, a serious problem, and solvable) and support for action.

For more information, see: van der Linden, S. L., Leiserowitz, A. A., Feinberg, G. D., & Maibach, E. W. (2015). The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change as a Gateway Belief: Experimental Evidence. PLoS ONE, 10(2). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0118489