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Survey: Fewer Americans doubt climate change is real

Aug 4, 2016

The first six months of this year were the warmest on record. This week, we heard about a deadly anthrax outbreak in Russia that's thought to be the result of permafrost thawing.

A new survey finds that fewer Americans doubt that climate change is happening, but it continues to be a highly polarizing issue.

This is the latest survey in the series of National Surveys on Energy and Environment conducted by Muhlenberg College and the University of Michigan. Researchers asked a random sample of 768 people, "Is there solid evidence that the average temperature on Earth has been getting warmer over the past four decades?"

Sarah Mills is a postdoctoral researcher with the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

“This time around we found that 15 percent of Americans do not believe there is solid evidence of climate change while 66 percent of Americans do see solid evidence. So that’s the lowest percent of doubt in climate change since the survey’s history," she says.

She says the percentage of Americans who believe there's solid evidence for climate change has gone down a little bit (from 70% in fall 2015). She says that's typical: belief that climate change is happening tends to drop over the winter.

In this survey, Mills says they also found that some groups expressed more uncertainty.

“This is a yes/no question: "Is there solid evidence the climate is changing?" And 19 percent of Americans said they weren’t sure. But the biggest group that said they weren’t sure was Republicans."

American views on the existence of evidence of global warming, 2015-2016.
Credit CLOSUP

In the survey, 26 percent of Republicans said that they didn’t know one way or the other whether there was evidence of climate change.

"We think that it could be that Donald Trump, the Republican’s presidential nominee, has said he is a non-believer in climate change," says Mills. "Belief that the climate is changing among Republicans was at 56 percent last fall, and now it’s down to 39 percent. So that was a pretty big drop."

As USA Today reported this week:

Whether the sharp differences between Trump and Clinton on the issue will move voters is unclear.While the number of voters who believe in climate change has increased — including 47% of conservative Republicans — the percentage of Americans truly "alarmed" by global warming is still small, said research scientist Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. He said it expanded from 10% in 2010 to 17% in a Yale Project survey released in March. The percentage of Americans who dismiss the science behind global warming has fallen from 16% to 10% over the same period.

"American engagement with this issue is at levels that we haven't seen since the latest high water mark in 2008," Leiserowitz said.

CLOSUP's Sarah Mills says they ask people why they hold their beliefs.

"Among both those that see that there’s evidence of climate change and those that say there’s no evidence of climate change, they often point to the weather in their own area. People do point to science, particularly among those that do believe the climate is changing, they do trust climate scientists," she says. "We also see a number of people talk about religion, and that their religious views affect what they believe. People don’t necessarily point to their politics, but I think there’s a lot of correlates along with politics that impact that."

She says level of education also impacts people's beliefs about climate change.

"Those who tend to be higher educated are more believing there’s evidence of climate change than those who don’t have a high school education."