Gallup released its annual survey on American perceptions about global warming last week, and the results were a bit discouraging. While 85–90% of Democrats are worried about global warming, realize humans are causing it, and are aware that most scientists agree on this, independents and Republicans are a different story. Only 35% of Republicans and 62% of independents realize humans are causing global warming (down from 40% and 70% last year, respectively), a similar number are worried about it, and only 42% of Republicans and 65% of independents are aware of the scientific consensus – also significantly down from last year’s Gallup poll.
The Trump administration’s polarizing stance on climate change is probably the main contributor to this decline in conservative acceptance of climate change realities. A recent study found evidence that “Americans may have formed their attitudes [on climate change] by using party elite cues” delivered via the media. In particular, the study found that Fox News “is consistently more partisan than other [news] outlets” and has incorporated politicians into the majority of its climate segments.
Americans are gradually becoming better-informed
Nevertheless, public awareness about climate change realities has improved over the long-term. For example, about two-thirds of Americans now realize that most scientists agree global warming is occurring, up from less than half in 1997.
There’s also a strong correlation between awareness of the expert consensus, that humans are causing global warming, and concern about the issue. This suggests that when people are aware that experts agree, they accept the consensus and realize we need to address the problem. This is consistent with research finding that the expert consensus is a ‘gateway belief’ leading to public support for climate action.
There’s a handbook for that
John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky, who previously published The Debunking Handbook, teamed up with Sander van der Linden and Edward Maibach to write The Consensus Handbook. It’s a concise and definitive summary of everything related to the expert climate consensus, including how we know 90–100% of climate scientists agree on human-caused global warming, efforts to manufacture doubt about the consensus, its role as a gateway belief, its neutralizing effect on political ideology, and how to inoculate people against misinformation.
Those last points are particularly important in light of the Gallup survey data. There’s an intense battle over public opinion on climate change, with cues from political elites having a polarizing effect that’s largely offset when people become aware of the expert consensus.
Thus, there’s been a concerted campaign to misinform people about the consensus. That was a key issue that major oil companies accepted in a recent court case, while their fossil fuel-funded supporters denied the consensus in briefs submitted to the court. Meanwhile, the Trump EPA is distributing misleading statements about scientific uncertainty on climate change, helping create this tribal identity that ‘Team Conservative’ denies the realities and dangers associated with human-caused global warming.
However, as the Consensus Handbook discusses, research has shown that inoculating people against misinformation can largely offset its influence.
The bad news is that misinformation can totally offset the influence of facts on topics like the expert consensus on human-caused global warming. The good news is that people don’t like being fooled, so when they’re additionally informed about the tactics used to trick them with misinformation, they’re more likely to accept the facts.
Some are polarized, but many are simply unaware
The challenge is that politicians on Fox News and other media outlets are able to reach a wide audience with their polarizing messages about climate change. Reaching a similarly sized audience not only with facts but also inoculation against the misinformation is a daunting task. However, as John Cook notes,
People always ask me “how do you convince conservatives” or “how do you convince Trump voters” and I answer, “the question isn’t how to convince conservatives, it’s who should we be targeting – our audience is the large, undecided majority”
One key point from the Gallup polling data is that consistently over the past 20 years, less than 10% of Americans have believed that most scientists don’t think global warming is happening. The vast majority of Americans are either aware or unaware of the expert consensus, but few have it backwards. Data from Yale and George Mason universities tells a similar story – only about 10% of Americans think less than 50% of climate scientists agree on global warming. While Americans badly underestimate the expert consensus – just 13% are aware there’s over 90% expert agreement, and the average American thinks the consensus is just 67% – despite growing polarization, few believe that most scientists reject global warming.
Most Americans are simply unaware about and thus underestimate the expert climate consensus. While a number of people can’t be convinced by the facts due to their polarized views, many more in that undecided, uninformed group remain open-minded and reachable.
We could solve the problem if conservative politicians and media outlets would simply stop spreading misinformation about and polarizing the subject of climate change. Sadly, the rise of this ‘tribal epistemology’ has done lasting damage to America, and nobody seems to have any good ideas how to stop or reverse it. But the Consensus Handbook provides some important information about the importance of consensus messaging and tools to help it take hold.