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Climate Change in the American Mind: October 2015


1. Global Warming Beliefs

1.1. Two in Three Americans Think Global Warming Is Happening.

Four times as many Americans think global warming is happening as think it is not. Two in three (67%) Americans think global warming is happening. By contrast, only about one in six Americans (16%) thinks global warming is not happening. Majorities of Americans across age, sex, and education levels think global warming is happening.

Image for Americans Think Global Warming is Happening
Image for Americans Think Global Warming is Happening

1.2. Four in Ten Americans Are “Extremely” or “Very” Sure Global Warming Is Happening. About One in Ten Is “Extremely” or “Very” Sure It Is Not Happening.

Four in ten Americans are either “extremely” or “very” sure global warming is happening (40%). About one in ten Americans is “extremely” or “very sure” global warming is not happening (8%).

The percentage who are sure global warming is happening ticked up slightly since the spring, while the percentage who are sure global warming is not happening has remained relatively steady over the past several years.

Image for Americans Are “Extremely” or “Very” Sure Global Warming is Happening
Image for Americans Are “Extremely” or “Very” Sure Global Warming is Happening

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

Moreover, in a recent study investigating the degree of scientific consensus on climate change, Cook and colleagues (2013) Cook, J., Nuccitelli, D., Green, S. A., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R., Way, R., Jacobs, P., & Skuce, A. (2013). Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental Research Letters, 8. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024024 examined nearly 12,000 peer-reviewed papers in the climate science literature and found that of those papers that stated a position on the reality of human-caused global warming, 97% said it is happening and at least partly human caused.

Public understanding of climate change, however, is starkly different than the expert consensus. Currently, about half of Americans (53%) think 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 (33%) say they believe it is due mostly to natural changes in the environment.

Image for Half of Americans Think That If Global Warming Is Happening, It Is Mostly Human Caused
Image for Half of Americans Think That If Global Warming Is Happening, It Is Mostly Human Caused

1.4. Only About One in Ten Americans Understands That Almost All Climate Scientists (More Than 90%) Have Concluded Human-Caused Global Warming is Happening.

Only about one in ten Americans understands that nearly all climate scientists (over 90%) are convinced that human-caused global warming is happening, and just half (50%, up 5 percentage points since spring 2015) believe a majority do. 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 marker 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.

Image for Only About One in Ten Americans Understands That Almost All Climate Scientists Agree
Image for Only About One in Ten Americans Understands That Almost All Climate Scientists Agree

This 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., Leiserowitz, A., Feinberg, G., & Maibach, E. (2015). The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change as a Gateway Belief: Experimental Evidence. PLoS ONE, 10(2). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0118489