The Politics of Climate
By Cary Funk and Brian Kennedy
Political fissures on climate issues extend far beyond beliefs about whether climate change is occurring and whether humans are playing a role, according to a new, in-depth survey by Pew Research Center. These divisions reach across every dimension of the climate debate, down to people's basic trust in the motivations that drive climate scientists to conduct their research.
Specifically, the survey finds wide political divides in views of the potential for devastation to the Earth's ecosystems and what might be done to address any climate impacts. There are also major divides in the way partisans interpret the current scientific discussion over climate, with the political left and right having vastly divergent perceptions of modern scientific consensus, differing levels of trust in the information they get from professional researchers, and different views as to whether it is the quest for knowledge or the quest for professional advancement that drives climate scientists in their work.
At the same time, political differences are not the exclusive drivers of people's views about climate issues. People's level of concern about the issue also matters. 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.
When it comes to party divides, the biggest gaps on climate policy and climate science are between those at the ends of the political spectrum. Across the board, from possible causes to who should be the one to sort this all out, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans see climate-related matters through vastly different lenses. Liberal Democrats place more faith in the work of climate scientists (55% say climate research reflects the best available evidence most of the time) and their understanding of the phenomenon (68% say climate scientists understand very well whether or not climate change is occurring). Perhaps it follows, then, that liberal Democrats are much more inclined to believe a wide variety of environmental catastrophes are potentially headed our way, and that both policy and individual actions can be effective in heading some of these off. Even the Republicans who believe the Earth is warming are much less likely than Democrats to expect severe harms to the Earth's ecosystem and to believe that any of six individual and policy actions asked about can make a big difference in addressing climate change. And, a majority of conservative Republicans believe that each of the six actions to address climate change can make no more than a small difference.
This survey extensively explores how peoples' divergent views over climate issues tie with people's views about climate scientists and their work. Democrats are especially likely to see scientists and their research in a positive light. Republicans are considerably more skeptical of climate scientists' information, understanding and research findings on climate matters. A few examples:
·Seven-in-ten liberal Democrats (70%) trust climate scientists a lot to give full and accurate information about the causes of climate change, compared with just 15% of conservative Republicans.
·Some 54% of liberal Democrats say climate scientists understand the causes of climate change very well. This compares with only 11% among conservative Republicans and 19% among moderate/liberal Republicans.
·Liberal Democrats, more than any other party/ideology group, perceive widespread consensus among climate scientists about the causes of warming. Only 16% of conservative Republicans say almost all scientists agree on this, compared with 55% of liberal Democrats.
·The credibility of climate research is also closely tied with Americans' political views. Some 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.
·On the flip side, 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).
While liberal Democrats give high marks to climate scientists' understanding of whether climate change is occurring, even among this group, fewer give strongly positive ratings when it comes to scientists' understanding about ways to address climate change. Minorities of all political groups say climate scientists understand how to address climate change "very well."
Despite some skepticism about climate scientists and their motives, majorities of Americans among 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% among 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.
To the extent there are political differences among Americans on these issues, those variances are largely concentrated when it comes to their views about climate scientists, per se, rather than scientists, 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.
Liberal Democrats are especially inclined to believe harms from climate change are likely and that both policy and individual actions can be effective in addressing climate change. Among the political divides over which actions could make a difference in addressing climate change:
·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.
Across all of these possible actions to reduce climate change, moderate/liberal Republicans and moderate/conservative Democrats fall in the middle between those on the ideological ends of either party.
The stakes in climate debates seem particularly high to liberal Democrats because they 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 to 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.
One thing that doesn't strongly influence opinion on climate issues, perhaps surprisingly, is one's level of general scientific literacy. According to the survey, the effects of having higher, medium or lower scores on a nine-item index of science knowledge tend to be modest and are only sometimes related to people's views about climate change and climate scientists, especially in comparison with party, ideology and concern about the issue. But, the role of science knowledge in people's beliefs about climate matters is varied and where a relationship occurs, it is complex. 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 some of the principle findings from a new Pew Research Center survey. Most of the findings in this report are based on a nationally representative survey of 1,534 U.S. adults conducted May 10-June 6, 2016. The margin of sampling error for the full sample is plus or minus 4 percentage points.