Public Release: 

Public holds polarized views about climate change and trust in climate scientists

At the same time, most Americans support a role for scientists in climate policy, and there is bipartisan support for expanding solar, wind energy

Pew Research Center

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Oct. 4) - There are gaping divisions in Americans' views across every dimension of the climate debate, including causes and cures for climate change and trust in climate scientists and their research, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

The survey of more than 1,500 U.S. adults finds that the political left and right see climate-related matters through vastly different lenses: liberal Democrats are especially likely to see scientists and their research in a positive light, while conservative Republicans are considerably more skeptical of climate scientists' information, understanding and research findings on climate issues. The key data:

  • 70% of liberal Democrats trust climate scientists' a lot to give full and accurate information about the causes of climate change, compared with just 15% of conservative Republicans.

  • 54% of liberal Democrats say climate scientists' understand the causes of climate change very well, while only 11% of conservative Republicans and 19% of moderate/liberal Republicans believe that.

  • Liberal Democrats, more than any other party/ideology group, perceive widespread consensus among climate scientists' about the causes of global warming. Only 16% of conservative Republicans say almost all scientists agree on this, compared with 55% of liberal Democrats.

  • 55% of liberal Democrats say climate research reflects the best available evidence most of the time, 39% say some of the time. By contrast, 9% of conservative Republicans say this occurs most of the time, 54% say it occurs some of the time.

  • Conservative Republicans are more inclined to say climate research findings are influenced by scientists' desire to advance their careers (57%) or their own political leanings (54%) most of the time. Small minorities of liberal Democrats say either influence occurs most of the time (16% and 11%, respectively).

  • But political differences on these issues are largely concentrated in people's views about climate scientists rather than scientists more generally. Majorities of all political groups report a fair amount of confidence in scientists, overall, to act in the public interest. And to the extent that Republicans are personally concerned about climate issues, they tend to hold more positive views about climate research.

Overall, liberal Democrats are especially likely to believe that climate change will bring harms to the environment. Among this group, about six-in-ten say climate change will very likely bring more droughts, storms that are more severe, harm to animals and plant life, and damage to shorelines from rising sea levels. By contrast, no more than about two-in-ten conservative Republicans consider any of these potential harms to be "very likely"; about half say each is either "not too" or "not at all" likely to occur.

The differences are also evident in people's thinking about how effective policy and personal behaviors can address the problems caused by climate change. Liberal Democrats are much more inclined to believe that both policy and individual actions can be effective in addressing climate change. Moderate/liberal Republicans and moderate/conservative Democrats fall in the middle between those on the ideological ends of either party when asked about possible actions to reduce climate change, including:

  • Power plant emission restrictions ? 76% of liberal Democrats say this can make a big difference, while 29% of conservative Republicans say the same, a difference of 47 percentage points.

  • An international agreement to limit carbon emissions ? 71% of liberal Democrats and 27% of conservative Republicans say this can make a big difference, a gap of 44 percentage points.

  • Tougher fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks ? 67% of liberal Democrats and 27% of conservative Republicans say this can make a big difference, a 40-percentage-point divide.

  • Corporate tax incentives to encourage businesses to reduce the "carbon footprint" from their activities ? 67% of liberal Democrats say this can make a big difference, while 23% of conservative Republicans agree for a difference of 44 percentage points.

  • More people driving hybrid and electric vehicles ? 56% of liberal Democrats say this can make a big difference, while 23% of conservative Republicans do, a difference of 33 percentage points.

  • People's individual efforts to reduce their "carbon footprints" as they go about daily life ? 52% of liberal Democrats say this can make a big difference compared with 21% of conservative Republicans, a difference of 31 percentage points.

There is more agreement across the political spectrum when it comes to giving scientists a seat at the policy-making table. Majorities of all party/ideology groups say climate scientists should have at least a minor role in policy decisions about climate issues. More than three-quarters of Democrats and most Republicans (69% of moderate or liberal Republicans and 48% of conservative Republicans) say climate scientists should have a major role in policy decisions related to the climate. Few in either party say climate scientists should have no role in policy decisions.

"Political differences are not the exclusive drivers of people's views about climate issues. People's level of concern about the issue also matters," said Cary Funk, lead author and associate director of research at Pew Research Center. "The 36% of Americans who are more personally concerned about the issue of global climate change, whether they are Republican or Democrat, are much more likely to see climate science as settled, to believe that humans are playing a role in causing the Earth to warm, and to put great faith in climate scientists."

This analysis also finds that a person's level of general scientific literacy does not strongly influence opinion on climate issues. The effects of having higher, medium or lower scores on a nine-item index of science knowledge tend to be modest and only sometimes related to people's views about climate change and climate scientists, especially in comparison with party, ideology and personal concern about the issue.

"The role of science knowledge in people's beliefs about climate matters varies and where a relationship occurs, it is complex," Funk said. "To the extent that science knowledge influences people's judgments related to climate change and trust in climate scientists, it does so among Democrats, but not Republicans. For example, Democrats with high science knowledge are especially likely to believe the Earth is warming due to human activity, to see scientists as having a firm understanding of climate change, and to trust climate scientists' information about the causes of climate change. But Republicans with higher science knowledge are no more or less likely to hold these beliefs. Thus, people's political orientations also tend to influence how knowledge about science affects their judgments and beliefs about climate matters and their trust in climate scientists."

These are among the findings from the new report, which is based on a nationally representative survey conducted May 10-June 6, 2016, among 1,534 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

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Other key findings:

Some 36% of Americans are deeply concerned about climate issues, saying they personally care a great deal about the issue of global climate change. And people's expressions of care are strongly correlated with their views, separate and apart from their partisan and ideological affiliations.

  • This group is composed primarily of Democrats (72%), but roughly a quarter of the group (24%) is Republican. Some 55% are women, making this group slightly more female than the population as a whole, and they come from a range of age and education groups and from all regions of the country.

  • 76% among those with more personal concern about climate issues say the Earth's warming is due to human activity. Yet, this group is quite optimistic about efforts to address climate change: Majorities among this group say that each of six different personal and policy actions asked about can be effective in addressing climate change.

  • 67% of this more climate-engaged public trusts climate scientists a lot to provide full and accurate information about the causes of climate change; this compares with 33% of those who care some and 9% of those with little personal concern about the issue of climate change.

  • About half of those with deep personal concerns about this issue (51%) say climate researchers' findings are influenced by the best available evidence "most of the time." By the same token, those deeply concerned about climate issues are less inclined to think climate research is often influenced by considerations other than the evidence, such as scientists' career interests or political leanings.

Fully 47% of U.S. adults say the media does a good job covering global climate change, while 51% say they do a bad job. However, 58% of people following climate news very closely say the media do a good job. Conservative Republicans stand out as more negative in their overall views about climate change news coverage.

  • 35% of Americans say the media exaggerates the threat from climate change, a roughly similar share (42%) says the media does not take the threat seriously enough, and 20% say the media are about right in their reporting.

  • People's views on this are strongly linked with political divides; 72% of conservative Republicans say the media exaggerates the threat of climate change, while 64% of liberal Democrats say the media does not take the threat of climate change seriously enough.

There is strong bipartisan support for expanding solar and wind energy production.

  • Large majorities of Americans favor more solar panel farms (89%) and more wind turbine farms (83%). By comparison, Americans are more divided over expanding other energy sources. Fully 45% favor more offshore oil and gas drilling, 42% support more hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" for oil and gas, 41% favor more coal mining, and 43% support building more nuclear power plants.

  • 44% of American homeowners have already installed (4%) or have given serious thought to installing solar panels at home (40%). Their reasons include both cost savings and helping the environment. Two-thirds of homeowners in the West have considered or installed solar panels, compared with 35% of homeowners in the South, 40% in the Midwest and 38% in the Northeast.

One-in-five Americans aim for everyday environmentalism; their political and climate change beliefs mirror the U.S. population.

  • 75% of Americans say they are "particularly concerned about helping the environment" as they go about daily living. But just two-in-ten (20%) describe themselves as someone who makes an effort to live in ways that protect the environment "all the time." A majority (63%) say they sometimes do this and just 17% do not do this at all or not too often.

  • Though more among this group of "everyday environmentalists" have deep concerns about climate issues, their beliefs about the causes of climate change closely match those of the public as a whole. This group is comprised of both Republicans (41%) and Democrats (53%) in close proportion to that found in the population as a whole.

After 10 a.m. EDT on Oct. 4, the report will be available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/10/04/the-politics-of-climate

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Dana Page at 202.419.4372 or dpage@pewresearch.org.

Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions. The Center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder. Subscribe to our daily and weekly email newsletters or follow us on our Fact Tank blog.

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