Public Holds Polarized Views About Climate Change And Trust In Climate Scientists


There are gaping divisions in Americans’ views across every dimension of the climate debate, including causes and cures for climate change and trust in climate scientists and their research, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

The survey of more than 1,500 U.S. adults finds that the political left and right see climate-related matters through vastly different lenses: liberal Democrats are especially likely to see scientists and their research in a positive light, while conservative Republicans are considerably more skeptical of climate scientists’ information, understanding and research findings on climate issues. The key data:

  • 70% of liberal Democrats trust climate scientists’ a lot to give full and accurate information about the causes of climate change, compared with just 15% of conservative Republicans.
  • 54% of liberal Democrats say climate scientists’ understand the causes of climate change very well, while only 11% of conservative Republicans and 19% of moderate/liberal Republicans believe that.
  • Liberal Democrats, more than any other party/ideology group, perceive widespread consensus among climate scientists’ about the causes of global warming. Only 16% of conservative Republicans say almost all scientists agree on this, compared with 55% of liberal Democrats.
  • 55% of liberal Democrats say climate research reflects the best available evidence most of the time, 39% say some of the time. By contrast, 9% of conservative Republicans say this occurs most of the time, 54% say it occurs some of the time.
  • Conservative Republicans are more inclined to say climate research findings are influenced by scientists’ desire to advance their careers (57%) or their own political leanings (54%) most of the time. Small minorities of liberal Democrats say either influence occurs most of the time (16% and 11%, respectively).
  • But political differences on these issues are largely concentrated in people’s views about climate scientists rather than scientists more generally. Majorities of all political groups report a fair amount of confidence in scientists, overall, to act in the public interest. And to the extent that Republicans are personally concerned about climate issues, they tend to hold more positive views about climate research.

Overall, liberal Democrats are especially likely to believe that climate change will bring harms to the environment. Among this group, about six-in-ten say climate change will very likely bring more droughts, storms that are more severe, harm to animals and plant life, and damage to shorelines from rising sea levels. By contrast, no more than about two-in-ten conservative Republicans consider any of these potential harms to be “very likely”; about half say each is either “not too” or “not at all” likely to occur.

The differences are also evident in people’s thinking about how effective policy and personal behaviors can address the problems caused by climate change. Liberal Democrats are much more inclined to believe that both policy and individual actions can be effective in addressing climate change. Moderate/liberal Republicans and moderate/conservative Democrats fall in the middle between those on the ideological ends of either party when asked about possible actions to reduce climate change, including:

  • Power plant emission restrictions ? 76% of liberal Democrats say this can make a big difference, while 29% of conservative Republicans say the same, a difference of 47 percentage points.
  • An international agreement to limit carbon emissions ? 71% of liberal Democrats and 27% of conservative Republicans say this can make a big difference, a gap of 44 percentage points.
  • Tougher fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks ? 67% of liberal Democrats and 27% of conservative Republicans say this can make a big difference, a 40-percentage-point divide.
  • Corporate tax incentives to encourage businesses to reduce the “carbon footprint” from their activities ? 67% of liberal Democrats say this can make a big difference, while 23% of conservative Republicans agree for a difference of 44 percentage points.
  • More people driving hybrid and electric vehicles ? 56% of liberal Democrats say this can make a big difference, while 23% of conservative Republicans do, a difference of 33 percentage points.
  • People’s individual efforts to reduce their “carbon footprints” as they go about daily life ? 52% of liberal Democrats say this can make a big difference compared with 21% of conservative Republicans, a difference of 31 percentage points.

There is more agreement across the political spectrum when it comes to giving scientists a seat at the policy-making table. Majorities of all party/ideology groups say climate scientists should have at least a minor role in policy decisions about climate issues. More than three-quarters of Democrats and most Republicans (69% of moderate or liberal Republicans and 48% of conservative Republicans) say climate scientists should have a major role in policy decisions related to the climate. Few in either party say climate scientists should have no role in policy decisions.

“Political differences are not the exclusive drivers of people’s views about climate issues. People’s level of concern about the issue also matters,” said Cary Funk, lead author and associate director of research at Pew Research Center. “The 36% of Americans who are more personally concerned about the issue of global climate change, whether they are Republican or Democrat, are much more likely to see climate science as settled, to believe that humans are playing a role in causing the Earth to warm, and to put great faith in climate scientists.”

This analysis also finds that a person’s level of general scientific literacy does not strongly influence opinion on climate issues. The effects of having higher, medium or lower scores on a nine-item index of science knowledge tend to be modest and only sometimes related to people’s views about climate change and climate scientists, especially in comparison with party, ideology and personal concern about the issue.

“The role of science knowledge in people’s beliefs about climate matters varies and where a relationship occurs, it is complex,” Funk said. “To the extent that science knowledge influences people’s judgments related to climate change and trust in climate scientists, it does so among Democrats, but not Republicans. For example, Democrats with high science knowledge are especially likely to believe the Earth is warming due to human activity, to see scientists as having a firm understanding of climate change, and to trust climate scientists’ information about the causes of climate change. But Republicans with higher science knowledge are no more or less likely to hold these beliefs. Thus, people’s political orientations also tend to influence how knowledge about science affects their judgments and beliefs about climate matters and their trust in climate scientists.”

These are among the findings from the new report, which is based on a nationally representative survey conducted May 10-June 6, 2016, among 1,534 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

One thought on “Public Holds Polarized Views About Climate Change And Trust In Climate Scientists

  • October 6, 2016 at 3:26 am

    CO2 is a global warming gas, but I have a fundamental problem with the short sighted viewpoint and oversimplification of a very complicated subject. The geologic record is replete with the violent and catastrophic changes in our climate. It’s easy to predict something that’s happened thousands of times in the past. Spinning future disasters as a result of man made CO2, with claims of exceptional precision, is a pretty marginal scientific position regardless of your political affiliation.


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