Why do so many Americans deny climate change?
Are you puzzled by American attitudes on climate change? Within the international climate change community, U.S. policy has been met with a mix of hope and frustration. Following the release of the U.S. national assessment report on the heels of the IPCC fifth assessment, the characterization of climate change appears to be shifting in American public discourse. What was previously “a series of impacts that will only be felt in the distant future,” is increasingly described as something that is already happening. Even politicians that in the past eagerly denied global warming, have begun to moderate their challenges of climate science, with some now avoiding comment altogether on grounds they are “not qualified to talk about it.”
This subtle shift in American discourse on climate change has also coincided with some domestic action, most prominently in President Obama’s recently proposed new greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction policies. Together, these developments have prompted a hopeful question:
Are we seeing Americans finally embrace climate change science and exhibit concern about climate change impacts?
A Ticking Clock: Made in America
As time marches, the window for climate action further narrows putting an ever greater onus on near term success of international cooperation to reduce global GHG accumulations. A number of barriers stand in the way of an effective multilateral solution, barriers that American leadership holds the unique potential to obviate.
However, that leadership will require a strong majority of Americans to not just believe in climate change, but take serious the threat it poses and prioritize it as a top concern for government action. While it is naïve to think that immediate and effective climate action will ensue from a small change in American beliefs, public opinion does affect U.S. policy on issues Americans deem important. If you are reading this blog post you are probably working on climate change in some capacity and are already familiar with this challenge. Yet, you may be far less familiar with the conditions informing the underlying American social psychology. At this time, I think it’s professionally prudent to inform yourself. So let’s take a look…
To the data…
There have been numerous polls over many years asking Americans about their global warming beliefs and attitudes. You may be surprised that a majority of Americans report that they actually do believe warming is occurring. This finding is consistent across polling questions and pollsters (with variation attributed to how the question is asked). Notably, there has been minimal change over time in these numbers.
Underneath this static surface of stable beliefs, though, there have been significant changes in American attitudes. A majority may believe the Earth is warming, but a much smaller fraction of Americans also express serious concern about anthropogenic climate change (39%). This proportion has remained virtually unchanged for 13 years. Far more frightening is that over this same period, the fraction of Americans reporting they are unconcerned because they deny or are skeptical about climate change has more than doubled. Trebling from 12% in 2001, skeptics now make up a quarter of the U.S. public.
It is critical that we pause and recognize the situation we, in the climate change community, find ourselves. Almost two decades of new scientific evidence, combined with international reports and studies (most of which almost no one reads), international conferences and meetings—all followed up with education and advocacy campaigns—appear to have only expanded and entrenched the population that denies the significance of the issue.
How can Americans believe in global warming but then be unconcerned by it?
Americans have actually become less convinced that climate change is anthropogenic in origin. While the numbers of Americans believing in climate change have held steady, the number attributing warming to “natural causes” has been on the rise. Against the backdrop of decades of concerted outreach and communication of scientific consensus that dispels the “its natural” theory, this is a depressing result.
More Americans are also certain about their climate change beliefs. Over the last decade, Americans have both become more convinced and more confident that their beliefs are based on a good understanding of global warming.
A challenging environment
But even acknowledging these challenges, an optimist may say that the situation is not so bad. After all, almost 40% of Americans say they are concerned about climate change, while another third I would guess is mostly just not paying attention. Get some of those that don’t care about the issue to start paying attention and we’re good. Right?
Let’s take a look behind the numbers. First, it’s important to be very clear that historically, Americans do care about the environment. The U.S. public has continued to support environmental laws on air and water pollution, not to mention the precedent setting conservation measures associated with our national parks and wilderness lands systems. Opinion polls show that Americans continue to be concerned about these local environmental issues.
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons it seems that this environmental sensitivity has not crossed over to climate change. In fact, on climate, the situation in the United States is actually pretty bad. Put simply: Despite the fact that the majority of Americans express some amount of worry, the average American is not yet seriously concerned about climate change enough to rank it as a priority issue.
Where is this lack of concern coming from? Interestingly, it is not highly correlated with age, education, income, or even region of the country. And while we do see some temporal patterns in these surveys, these probably reflect the economic roller coaster ride starting in 2007. Also we must recognize that these polls have been taken in the wake of the focus on terrorism since 2001. Though you can’t poll the counterfactual, absent these two major events, I doubt we would have observed radically different trends than we currently see.
In sum, the data drives us to a few conclusions. One, that efforts to help Americans understand the science and impacts of climate change have not only been ineffectual, but appear to have been counterproductive. Two, that the majority of Americans are just not concerned with climate change nor do they see it as an imminent threat. And perhaps most disconcerting, the variable that is highly correlated with current American attitudes about climate change is political party affiliation!
For several decades, Americans have been sorting themselves ideologically into political parties. Historically, political parties in the United States had significant overlap in ideology—you could find many Republicans and Democrats that would agree on any given issue. But, such overlap is no longer present. An individual’s position on major “hot button” issues is now tightly connected with political party affiliation. Particularly among the political “right” (i.e., Republicans and the “Tea Party”), political parties increasingly exhibit tribal tendencies.
Even more troubling, a component of these trends is a growing distrust in science itself, driven largely by changes in the beliefs of Americans with a conservative tribal identification.
So we have a big problem. International collective action on GHG emissions is contingent upon U.S. action and leadership. Yet, Americans are a statistical outlier in their belief and concern about climate change.
And this outlier status appears largely explained by a new level of tribal-ness in American politics and one party’s attachment of group identity to an anti-science view on the issue.
Education makes us more stupider
The failure of education and information campaigns to shift public opinion in the United States is challenging some old social psychology assumptions. Research shows that people will resist acknowledging information or evaluating evidence presented to them if it appears to conflict with pre-existing beliefs on issues deemed important. Group or tribal affiliation strongly affects which issues are viewed as important. Tribal (in this case political party) affiliation produces strong biases that short-circuit people’s ability to rationally evaluate and even acknowledge credible evidence. This research explains what we saw in the polling data—attempts to educate people on an issue linked to tribal affiliation actually reinforces their rejection and disregard of that issue. The exact opposite of the intended effect.
You can observe this psychological phenomenon not only with political conservatives, but also with many on the political left on issues such as geoengineering. Our brains eagerly discredit messengers and turn off rational processing of evidence in favor of preserving trial identity and cohesion. This phenomenon has been labeled “Identity-Protective Cognition” or the “smart idiot effect.” It is easy to see how it would be evolutionarily advantageous for humans to bias their beliefs so as to better enhance group or tribal cohesion.
With American conservatives, though, this psychological mechanism seems to be more predominant and takes a particularly pernicious form, as it is often combined with a religious conception of the environment—the belief that divine intervention will sustain the Earth in a condition that will continue to be ideal for humans. In other words, there is a strong tendency in American religiosity—and Americans are uniquely religious in the developed world—that rejects the possibility of global environmental changes and related scientific conclusions. So, as science embraces the Anthropocene paradigm, there is a growing rejection of the science underpinning this paradigm by a significant fraction of the American public. This dynamic should frighten all of us and may portend future conflicts.
When tribal warfare becomes a civil war
Earlier this year, Christopher Hayes wrote a controversial and fascinating article juxtaposing the political economy of the climate issue with that of slavery and the American Civil War. He rightly was careful to distinguish the moral repugnancy of treating human beings like property from the moral quandary of emitting GHGs. His comparison instead focused on the role both slavery and fossil fuels play in the economy of each period and functioned as sources of energy for production. Not only was the economy of the southern United States built on slave labor, but so was much of the personal wealth in the South. The movement to abolish slavery in the United States demanded that this claimed wealth (in the form of slaves that at the time had a market value) be forfeited. The conflict was only resolved through a bloody civil war.
Now similarly imagine how much wealth is tied up in fossil fuel reserves and capital dependent on continued consumption of those reserves. Taking climate change seriously demands that much of that booked wealth be forfeited. Americans are currently celebrating cheap energy in the form of new drilling technologies for petroleum and natural gas that are expanding domestic reserves. Fossil fuel companies continue to invest heavily in exploration and development of future supplies and reserves. These are not the signs of a society ready to walk away from so much perceived wealth.
OK, how do we fix it?
Hayes sees hope in the climate-focused divesture movement. I am pessimistic that this strategy will have a significant effect unless backed by governments and based on the ambiguous record of socially responsible investing.
Others continue to champion public education campaigns and scientific reports that unproductively attempt to scare and inspire at the same time. There are good reasons to do more science on climate change. But, as I discussed above, I don’t think it would be wise to expect further scientific data or predictions to produce political change.
Again, an individual’s ability to rationally consider evidence seems to be determined by whether their tribal group has a firm position on the issue. Unfortunately, climate change is now firmly affiliated with tribal identity in the United States. Therefore, efforts to shift U.S. public opinion must separate the issue of climate change from its tribal association, especially within American conservatism.
How might this separation be achieved? To be honest, I really don’t know. (But I am pretty sure, it is not by focusing on cosmetic things like tweaking our terminology.) Is there an alternative public outreach strategy that might work? I hate to throw cold water on the campaigners out there, but I doubt this is a path to success.
My intuitive assessment, as I have said previously, derives from spending the first half of my life in isolated regions of Texas that were both politically and religiously conservative. My sense is that climate change will only become a majority concern and priority for the American public when it manifests as an imminent threat to the people and places they care about, which is sadly an obvious insight that comes without a solution.
The tragic aspect of my assessment is that the nature of the climate change problem does not lend itself to a last minute clean-up. It seems that the impacts of climate change will need to become dire enough to overcome the loss aversion associated with giving up all that fossil fuel wealth. Abolishing the burning of fossil fuels may yet lead to a war, amongst ourselves, with the planet, or both. I certainly hope I am wrong and that we see a wave of prominent conservative leadership that finds the courage to pry away climate change denial as a measure of tribal identity.
“Climate Change: the Slippery, Shape Shifting, Jelly Mold Threat,” Climate Change Denial, George Marshall, August 20th, 2014.
“Republicans’ Lukewarm Climate Warrior,” Bloomberg View, Christopher Flavelle, August 18th, 2014.
“Climate Change in the American Mind,” Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, April 2014.
 Concern for climate change is negatively correlated with one group of Americans: political conservatives. Higher income Republicans are more likely to dismiss climate change than lower income Republicans.
 Given that the mission of the GHG Management Institute is largely educational, it is appropriate for me to focus briefly on the role of education in shifting public opinion. But first let me distinguish the mission of the Institute. Information campaigns on climate change are intended to change public opinion. In contrast, it is the mission of the Institute not to change the opinions of the masses. It is to advance the professional development of those working to address the causes of climate change.