Last week, amid all the attention devoted to presidential polls, a couple of different polls came out examining how one of the issues in the presidential campaign is perceived by the voters. Climate change has come up in both presidential debates so far, and the positions of the candidates on this issue are radically different (stay tuned to Ars for more on that). But as the polls reveal, these differences reflect fundamental differences between the members of the two parties.
In a small bit of good news, however, there is a group of people who self-identify as concerned about the climate. But even within this group, there’s a partisan divide.
Don’t trust those scientists
One of the new polls comes from the Pew Research Center, which surveyed more than 1,500 US adults (the survey has a margin of error of 4 percent). In addition to answering questions about their view on climate science and policy, the participants were asked about their political affiliations, which were divided into four categories based on strong or moderate affiliation with one of the two major parties.
A number of studies, using varied methodologies, have all indicated that an overwhelming majority of scientists accept the evidence for human-driven climate change. But it’s clear the public doesn’t know that. Barely more than half of liberal Democrats say that there’s a scientific consensus. Less than a third of moderate Democrats do, and only about 10 to 15 percent of all Republicans do. Similar numbers were obtained when Pew asked whether scientists knew if climate change is occurring, what its causes are, and what the best ways to address it are. None of these issues is at all scientifically controversial, yet only 11 percent of conservative Republicans felt that we understand the cause.
Part of the problem is that the same pattern holds when you ask people whether climate scientists are influenced by the evidence. Here, only 55 percent of liberal Democrats agreed. The numbers fell to 39 percent, 30 percent, and 9 percent as you move across the spectrum to conservative Republicans. Instead, over half of this group felt that climate scientists were most influenced by a desire to advance their careers or their own political beliefs.
Shockingly, anywhere from 23 to 34 percent felt that the scientists were most influenced by a “desire to help their industries.” Sadly, there doesn’t appear to be any data on what industry these people imagine climate scientists are working for.
Unsurprisingly, this same partisan divide was reflected in people’s belief in a variety of consequences—some of which, notably, are already happening—as well as the effectiveness of various solutions.
One cause for optimism is that Pew identified a slice of the public (36 percent) who self-identified as very concerned about climate change, a quarter of whom were Republicans. Overall, this group was much more likely to accept the consequences and solutions mentioned above. But there was still a partisan gap, as less than half of the Republicans in this group accepted that humanity was driving climate change; 87 percent of Democrats did.
All of which suggests that at least some of the people who said they are concerned about climate issues are concerned because they don’t believe there are any.
Regardless of how they felt about the climate, the Pew found that well over 80 percent of the US public favors expansion of solar and wind power. Which is probably for the best, as the economics dictate that they’re going to get it.
The second poll, which came from the Associated Press-NORC Center at the University of Chicago, delves into energy policy in a bit more detail. It also finds a number of partisan gaps, with 84 percent of Democrats favoring government action, nearly double the rate of Republicans. Still, the 43 percent of Republicans that want action on the climate is much higher than most of the numbers seen in the Pew survey. And when phrased as a question about whether the US should continue to work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Republican support reached 77 percent (Democrats were at 91 percent).
How to get there was less certain, though. About two-thirds of Democrats and 46 percent of Republicans favored a reduction in coal use through federal action. That reduction is happening already, but primarily due to the low cost of fracked natural gas. Yet 40 percent of the US public has no opinion on fracking at all, while only 13 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans support it.
The AP-NORC poll also asks if people would be willing to pay a monthly fee to address climate change. More than 40 percent were unwilling to pay even a dollar. Still, about 30 percent were willing to pay as much as $20, and 20 percent as much as $50. Again, affiliation with the Democratic Party correlated with a willingness to pay.
Overall, the polls emphasize a few things. One is that the type of question being asked seems to make a big difference. When asked strictly about what policies will be effective in tackling climate change, most people were pessimistic about them. But when asked if they actually wanted to follow policies like advancing renewable energy and limiting coal, there was much more enthusiasm, regardless of political affiliation.
Politics still clearly mattered, though, and not just in cases where the questions asked people to make individual financial sacrifices. Instead, the issue has become so politicized that people on one end of the political spectrum don’t even believe the scientific evidence, instead suspecting climate scientists of acting on a variety of forms of self-interest—including some that have no rational basis. It’s hard to see how to get from there to a state where scientific evidence regains a position of trust.