A new Gallup survey shows that independent voters are less concerned about climate change than they were a year ago. In the last year, independents have become less likely to accept that global warming is happening and that humans are the cause, and less likely to perceive that there’s a scientific consensus about global warming.
In 2017, 71 percent of independent voters were aware that most scientists believe global warming is occurring; this year it’s 65 percent. There has long been a significant gap between public perception of global warming and the scientific consensus: Between 90 percent and 100 percent of climate scientists agree humans are causing global warming, with studies converging on 97-percent consensus. But surveys since 2010 offered hope that the “consensus gap” had been shrinking over the last eight years. Gallup’s new data indicates this trend has reversed. The consensus gap widened over the last year.
Independents aren’t the only ones on the move. The American public has become more polarized on climate change in the last year: Climate concern and acceptance has dropped among Republicans, and Democrats have become more accepting of climate change.
There are a few ways to account for these shifts in public opinion. One is the cues we’ve heard from our political leaders, which are a leading driver of people’s concerns and perceptions about climate change.
An analysis of 74 studies from 2002 to 2010 showed that when congressional Republicans issued public statements opposing climate action or voted against environmental bills, public concern about climate change tended to drop. It should come as no surprise that under President Donald Trump’s administration, Republicans have become less accepting of climate change. Political cues, such as the Environmental Protection Agency head arguing that global warming is beneficial, or the energy secretary claiming that global warming is caused by “ocean waters,” are large, loud signposts pointing the way for the conservative community.
“It should come as no surprise that under the current administration, Republicans have become less accepting of climate change.”
We’ve been here before. From 2009 to 2010, public concern about climate change plummeted. To investigate possible causes, Yale University researchers analyzed changes in climate belief from surveys taken in 2008 and 2011. They explored possible factors, such as local economic conditions, local climate conditions and the environmental record of local politicians. They found that changes in political cues, such as a congressional representative’s environmental record, were the main cause of the drop in climate concern.
It matters who the political cues come from, though: One comprehensive survey-of-surveys found that the single biggest driver of climate concern was political affiliation. People are tribal. When our social group believes something, we’re more likely to believe the same. When our tribal leaders stake a position, we tend to change our beliefs accordingly.
This means the Trump’s administration’s climate science denial has consequences. It matters when the president cites cold weather as proof against global warming, mentions of climate change are stripped from government websites, and an overt climate denier is appointed to head organizations such as NASA, which conduct key climate research. Social science research predicts that the deluge of climate misinformation coming from our political leaders will have an impact. And that impact is already showing up in public opinion surveys.
“It matters when the president cites cold weather as proof against global warming and mentions of climate change are stripped from government websites.”
A generation ago, climate change was a more bipartisan issue. In 1989, George H. W. Bush pledged to “combat the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.” However, in the early 1990s, conservative think-tanks and fossil fuel companies began disseminating climate misinformation, which gradually transformed climate change into a polarized issue. The last 14 months have been like a compressed version of decades of incremental climate polarization.
That Republicans are less likely to believe global warming is real is hardly surprising, but the drop in concern among independents is worrying. When I give presentations about climate communication and science denial, I’m always asked, “What do we say to convince a climate denier?” My answer is that the better question isn’t what but whom? Who is our target audience? The energy expended on convincing the 10 percent of Americans who are dismissive of climate change is largely wasted.
There are a number of climate communicators doing a wonderful job reaching out to conservative communities, and lots of interesting research into ways to depolarize the issue. But with limited resources, we have to pick our battles and push the levers that make the biggest difference. Our efforts are better spent communicating the reality of climate change to the large, undecided majority, including independent voters, who are still receptive to facts.
“The energy expended on convincing the 10 percent of Americans who are dismissive of climate change is largely wasted.”
However, being open to facts also means being vulnerable to misinformation, and the former can be canceled out by the latter. When people are confronted with conflicting messages, with no way to distinguish fact from fiction, they tend to disengage and believe neither. The greatest danger of “fake news” is not that it convinces people to believe lies, but that its mere existence causes people to stop accepting facts. This also explains why we see Republicans and Democrats moving in opposite directions on climate change. Misinformation polarizes.
The solution? My own research, and the work of others, finds that inoculation is the key to neutralizing misinformation. We need to explain the techniques used to mislead, so that people can identify misinformation when it comes their way and avoid getting duped. A combination of media literacy and critical thinking is essential.
My research into inoculation offers one gleam of hope. When I talked to respondents about the techniques used to mislead people, climate misinformation was neutralized for respondents across the political spectrum. This indicates that, regardless of political views, no one wants to be deceived. It may not be possible to prevent the Trump administration from disseminating misinformation. But it is possible to arm people, particularly independents who are vulnerable to misinformation, with the critical thinking to see through the administration’s false arguments.
A well-functioning democracy depends on a well-informed populace, and the stakes for avoiding being misled by climate misinformation are high. While our communication efforts should concentrate on the undecided majority, inoculation offers a path to neutralizing misinformation for all segments of the population.
John Cook is a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.