At least 70 percent of Americans now believe that global warming during the last 40 years is real and supported by solid evidence, coinciding with the lowest percentage of Americans who doubt climate change, according to a new poll released this week.
Even more startling: the survey also found a dramatic drop during the past year in the number of self-identified Republicans who doubt the existence of climate change, from 41 percent last fall to 26 percent now.
“The big shift here is amongst Republicans, and it is a huge one,” said Barry Rabe, professor of public policy and environmental policy at the University of Michigan, and a co-author of the poll. “Most survey work has found a gaping divide between self-identified Democrats and Republicans on this issue for many years now. This suggests that those differences still persist, but have declined significantly. We did not anticipate this.”
The finding that 70 percent of Americans support the evidence of climate change represents the second-highest level in the history of the survey, which is conducted twice annually — in the spring and fall — by the National Surveys on Energy and the Environment. The current number is only a slight dip from the 72 percent recorded in 2008, which then likely was “a response to the perception of weather or weather experiences, and before there was a campaign to challenge proposed climate change policies,” Rabe said. “But then it began to drop almost immediately.”
By this spring, however, the percentage had risen to 63 percent, then jumped during the past six months to 70 percent, almost certainly reflecting concern over severe drought conditions in many parts of the country, Rabe said. “The drought issue is affecting big regions of the country,” Rabe said. “Drought is not just a narrow, localized issue now. A lot of people live in areas where there is some degree of drought.”
Americans cited drought most often as having a “very large” effect on their attitudes, including 61 percent of those who believe climate change is occurring, according to the poll.
“People are often responding to their perception of weather or weather experience,” Rabe said. “Rather than look at scientific journals or U.N. reports, they have a tendency to look at what last summer or winter was like. So the drought issue has gone up dramatically.”
The telephone survey contacted more than 900 randomly selected Americans, and was conducted by Rabe, Christopher Borick, professor of political science at Muhlenberg College and director of the Muhlenberg Institute of Public Opinion, and Sarah Mills, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Michigan’s center for local, state and urban policy, which Rabe directs.
Of those Americans who believe in climate change, a record 65 percent said they were “very confident” of their position, according to the poll.
Moreover, a record low number of Americans doubt the evidence of climate change, with only 16 percent now holding this view, and a majority of Republicans (56 percent) support the evidence behind global warming for the first time since 2008, when 55 percent of GOP responders believed climate change was real. Less surprising, strong majorities of Democrats (79 percent) and Independents (69 percent) continue to believe there is solid evidence of global warming.
Compared to the drop in doubt among Republicans, only six percent fewer Democrats and four percent fewer Independents called themselves doubters; the relatively lower drop among Democrats and Independents may be in part due to their already low levels of doubt, according to the survey.
“Nonetheless, the far more substantial decline in doubt among Republicans contributed significantly to the record low levels of doubt about global warming,” suggesting “some possibility for greater convergence of views across partisan lines, although it reflects only a single point in time,” the report said.
The rise from 63 percent in the spring to 70 percent now “represents a significant shift,” Rabe said. “It’s a seven percent shift on the same question with the same kind of sample. Whether it is a permanent shift, or an aberration, we don’t know. These are snapshots in time.”
In previous surveys, large majorities of American who doubted the existence of climate change said they felt that way because of local weather observations. This time, however, more than a third (34 percent) of the doubters said that local weather had “no effect” on their views, which represents the highest percentage since these surveys began in 2008.
The questions in this survey asked whether Americans believe there is solid evidence that average temperatures on Earth have been getting warmer during the last four decades, and how confident they were of their decision. They also asked about factors that have influenced their position, such as drought, declining glaciers and polar ice, as well as extreme weather events, such as major storms and floods, among others.
They did not ask whether human activities — such as fossil fuel burning — were responsible for climate change, or about policy questions and mitigation strategies.
“We are asking the same questions to a large diverse survey of Americans, and [these findings] suggest there is some expansion in the base of Americans who see this pattern and affirm it,” Rabe said. “This does not necessarily mean that all of these people accept the idea that there is human causation behind it, and still others might say, ‘yes, this is happening, but there is nothing we can do about it.’ But it does suggest a deeper recognition of a pattern and a deeper recognition of a problem.”
He said that the researchers plan to conduct additional surveys that will examine Americans’ attitudes regarding policy questions, causation and the impact of the Pope’s recent encyclical on climate change.
“We will be going into much more depth,” he said. “More will be coming in the weeks ahead.”
Marlene Cimons is a freelance writer who specializes in science, health and the environment.