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Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Global Warming: Democrats and Republicans Agree

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Wait, what?

Contrary to the polarized positions that politicians and commentators often take in the media, Americans do not disagree about global warming or what to do about it. The vast majority of citizens in every U.S. state believe global warming has been happening and that human actions are part of the cause—including residents of states that vote strongly Republican.

If that’s not surprising enough, more than 60 percent of Americans in every state favor government-imposed limits on carbon dioxide emissions from businesses and power plants. “Politicians may be divided, but the public is not,” says Jon Krosnick, a senior fellow at Stanford University who assessed 21 surveys about climate change that include more than 19,000 people combined.

Krosnick analyzed replies to more than a dozen questions about global warming and found that the difference in responses among people from different states rarely exceeded 25 percent. For example, when residents were asked about the statement “past global warming has been caused by humans or about as equally by humans and natural causes,” the lowest rate of agreement was about 65 percent (Utah) and the highest was about 90 percent (Rhode Island).

>>see the responses to all questions here>>

Krosnick cites several reasons for the disconnect between what average Americans think and what politicians say their constituents think. For starters, the wording of survey questions can lead to misleading impressions. For example, certain surveys have used language such as “From what you’ve read and heard, do you think there is solid evidence that the Earth is warming up?” People will reply “no,” Krosnick explains, “because politicians and pundits drive what people read and hear.”

Second, most surveys are nationwide, and politicians tend to ignore the results because they don’t think residents in their state match the national averages. Krosnick broke down the replies to questions by state so governors, senators and representatives could see the viewpoints within their borders. That exercise, he says, indicates that “a huge percentage of the public supports legislation that politicians have yet to pass.”

A nationwide survey done by Yale University and George Mason University at the end of 2013, after Krosnick’s analysis, supports his conclusions. It found that 83 percent of Americans said the U.S. should make an effort to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs. And 71 percent said global warming should be a “very high,” “high” or “medium” priority for the president and Congress. Lead researcher Edward Maibach at George Mason said in a statement, “Much of our national dialogue about climate and energy policy focuses on divisions between the political parties. Our findings show that while there are important policy differences between Democrats and Republicans, there is also some common ground on which the nation could build an effective response to climate change.”

To make progress, Krosnick thinks scientists and other leaders must continue to educate the public. The largest spread in answers to the questions he analyzed, when comparing states, was whether individuals consider themselves “highly knowledgeable” about global warming; only 30 percent to 60 percent of respondents said yes, depending on the state.

Oddly, fewer than half the residents in every state believe global warming is “extremely important” to them personally, although many more consider it “very” or “moderately” important. Krosnick is not sure what’s behind that distribution, but he’s working on an answer.

Image courtesy DonkeyHotey on Flickr

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

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