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Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Americans Who Mistrust Climate Scientists Take Cues from Global Temperatures

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The White House obviously accepts the science behind human-caused climate change, as was made clear again this week by its announcement of plans to cut carbon emissions from U.S. power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2030. Some Americans remain skeptical—but they’re in the minority. As The New York Times reports, most Americans think global warming is a fact.

Strangely enough, not everyone who accepts the data on anthropogenic global warming trusts climate scientists. According to the Stanford National Global Warming Poll, about a third of Americans are skeptical of climate scientists and instead base their opinions on climate change—at least in part—on global temperatures, according to a recent time series analysis of the Stanford poll.

The poll found that Americans who trust climate scientists tend to keep their global warming views, while the one-third of Americans suspicious of climate scientists seems to be swayed by the previous year’s average world temperature record. When the media declares that last year was the Earth’s hottest or coldest (or second hottest or coldest and so on) on record, apparently this news influences whether or not that latter group accepts that global warming is real.

Percent of Americans who believe in global warming based on their trust in climate scientists. Americans who mistrust climate scientists (green line) seem to base their views on climate change on the previous year’s average world temperature record.* Image Credit: Jen Christiansen and Annie Sneed. Source: The Stanford National Global Warming Poll.

“There’s a chunk of people who mistrust climate scientists and they think, ‘I’ve got to figure this out on my own,’” says Jon Krosnick of Stanford University. He says annual global temperature records influence this group because “they’re looking for a different source of data” other than climate science. Oddly, however, they don’t seem influenced by media coverage of annual national temperatures.

Public opinion on the issue also seems unaffected by social, weather and economic current events such as Climategate, the release of Vice President Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, or Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.

*Correction: (6/11/14 & 7/29/14): This graphic was edited after posting to correct an error.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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