Turn on the TV news tonight and in the (unlikely) event you see any coverage of global warming you are likely to come away with the belief that Americans are evenly divided about the issue and what we should do about it. But a fascinating new report by researchers at Yale University and George Mason University found that Americans are not evenly split on the issue. In fact, only 10 percent are in the camp that believes global warming is absolutely not happening and that human actions have no impact on global temperature change.
Published last month by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, the report (pdf) shows that Americans are far less polarized about global warming than is commonly believed. Among other things, the report also found strong support for government action to address global warming, including support for a revenue neutral carbon tax, regardless of political party preference.
Researchers found that a strong majority of Americans (72%) believe global warming should be a political priority and they want their elected officials to do something about it. An even stronger majority (92%) think that developing clean energy should be a political priority. The survey also showed a majority of Americans think that protecting the environment actually improves economic growth and creates jobs.
So why do Americans have a skewed vision of the public's opinion on global warming? According to Anthony Leiserowitz of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies at Yale University, one of the report's principal investigators, a media bias for controversy combined with an extremely vocal minority of "Dismissers" are the driving forces behind the perceived polarization.
Lieserowitz identifies "six Americas" (see chart above), to describe the range of opinion on global warming. Ranging from Alarmed, Concerned and Cautious on one side of the spectrum, to Disengaged, Doubtful and Dismissive on the other side, the report paints a more nuanced picture of public opinion in America than that which is commonly perceived by the public.
"These [Dismissive] are people who are firmly convinced it's not happening, not human-caused and many of them are what we would lovingly call conspiracy theorists," said Leiserowitz on NPR's Science Friday. "They say it's a hoax, it's scientists making up data, it's a UN plot to take over American sovereignty, it's Al Gore and his friends trying to get rich..."
But while this group makes up only 10 percent of the population, they are a mobilized, outspoken minority.
"They are quite vocal, very engaged. Given the opportunity they will talk a lot about this issue," said Leiserowitz. "They're only 10 percent and yet they appear much larger because they tend to dominate much of the public square..."
All of the credit should not be given to the skeptics and their adept communications, however, Leiserowitz rightly points out.
In the mainstream media, "There's a basic imperative, especially in commercial media, that controversy sells," he says. "Which would you rather see? somebody who is methodically and deliberately spelling out the science of climate change or two people yelling at each other?"