CDS: Political Standing and Climate Science

CONWAY — The divide over climate change has long split along party lines, but a new report by University of New Hampshire researchers highlights just how politicized climate science has become.

“We found that most Americans are unclear about where the North and South Pole are located,” said Larry Hamilton, professor of sociology at UNH, “but they have definite ideas about whether the climate there is changing. And those ideas, along with basic knowledge, correlate with how they plan to vote in November.”

Hamilton was lead researcher on the first ever polar, environment and science survey, a joint project between the UNH Carsey School of Public Policy and Columbia University. Researchers asked Americans their views on science and climate change, their sources of information, their thoughts on the current problems and possible solutions. They also tested basic geographic knowledge related to polar regions. The survey was conducted in August, and the results came out in October.

Public views on almost everything related to climate change — acceptance of basic scientific observations, trusted sources of information, the seriousness of current problems, the need for a policy response — differ greatly depending on political orientation, the survey found.

“Trump supporters are much less likely to accept or know the scientific observations that carbon dioxide has increased and arctic sea ice declined,” Hamilton said in the report. “Logically, we could separate the scientific observation that climate change is occurring from the political question of what should be done. In public opinion, however, the science and political issues prove not very distinct.”

Ninety-nine percent of Clinton voters believe climate change is happening now, and 86 percent believe it is largely caused by humans. This, Hamilton said, is the statement most scientists support.

A majority of Trump supporters, however — 55 percent — believe climate change is occurring through natural forces. Only 33 percent believe humans are the primary cause. Another 7 percent do not believe climate change is occurring.

A similar divide occurred when respondents were asked whom they trust for information on climate change. Supporters of both Clinton and Trump listed scientists as their most trusted source, but the two sides showed differing levels of trust: 85 percent of Clinton supporters said they trust scientists for information on climate change, compared with 61 percent of Trump supporters.

For Trump supporters, Fox News was the second-most trusted source for information — 49 percent — followed by friends at 38 percent and religious leaders at 34 percent.

Only 10 percent of Clinton supporters, meanwhile, trust Fox, and 26 percent trust religious leaders. Clinton supporters trust websites, friends and political leaders most after scientists, at 44 percent, 42 percent and 42 percent. Only 18 percent of Trump supporters trust political leaders, and 22 percent trust websites.

That separation continued into policy questions, where Clinton supporters repeatedly give high priority to policy moves aimed to reduce the impacts of climate change such as renewable energy investments, lifestyle changes and a carbon tax.

But Clinton supporters are not alone here. “Trump supporters also place high priority on action to reduce climate risks,” Hamilton said, though not as high as Clinton supporters: “39 percent prioritize renewable energy investments and 27 percent consumer or lifestyle changes.”

Researchers also found a relatively poor understanding of the forces at work in global warming, paired respondents’ belief they were well-informed. Respondents had more confidence in their understanding of issues like sea level rise and melting glaciers than the data bore out.

“Objective tests suggest,” Hamilton said, “that such confidence often derives from political convictions rather than knowledge of science or the physical world.”

The survey found most respondents had limited knowledge of polar regions. “Less than 40 percent correctly place the North Pole on ice a few feet or yards thick, floating over a deep ocean,” Hamilton said.

“Similar proportions think the pole is on ice more than a mile thick, over land, while others imagine a rocky, mountainous landscape. Answers regarding the South Pole are not much better; less than half correctly place it on thick ice over land.”

Similarly, fewer than 20 percent of respondents recognized the United States as an arctic nation, with more than 3 million square miles of territory and thousands of inhabitants within the Arctic Circle.

Over the past seven years, UNH researchers have seen public acceptance of climate change “drifting upwards,” Hamilton said, and the scientifically supported view that humans are the main cause has climbed from roughly 50 percent seven years ago to 63 percent in recent surveys. “Thus, despite sharp political divisions, there is broad and rising public recognition of climate-change problems and of the need to shift our energy use in response.”


This story appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

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