By Bill Dawson
Texas Climate News
Last year, Gallup’s annual nationwide poll on global warming, the manmade phenomenon that’s driving disruptive climate change, discovered public concerns at their highest levels since the organization started asking about the issue in 2001.
Generally, Republicans have lagged well behind Democrats and Independents over the years in their acceptance of climate science and in their stated concern about climate change.
Last year, Gallup found that gap widening — concern among Democrats and Independents jumped from 2016 to 2017, while Republican concern stayed about the same as it had been in recent years, at steady though much lower levels than among other Americans.
In the 2018 edition of the poll, conducted last month, Gallup found that perennial partisan divide had widened even more. This time, Democrats’ concern continued to grow, while concern among Republicans and Independents was lower.
Overall, Gallup’s analysts concluded that “Americans’ concerns about global warming are not much different from the record-high levels they were at a year ago,” though “the views of some partisans have shifted.”
To get another well-informed interpretation of the Gallup-measured opinion trends, TCN posed several questions by email to Sheril Kirshenbaum, who was director of the now-suspended University of Texas Energy Poll for six years.
Kirshenbaum, who holds graduate degrees in biology and policy, is executive director of Science Debate, a nonprofit, nonpartisan initiative that aims “to restore science to its rightful place in politics.”
She also hosts Serving Up Science, a YouTube series and NPR show of the same name. In general, she says, she works “to enhance public understanding of science and improve communication between scientists, policymakers and the public.”
What do you make of the growing partisan divide on Gallup’s questions, with both Republicans and Independents moving away from acceptance of the science and support for action?
It’s not very surprising at all. The changes in attitudes since 2017 aren’t that large and climate change is a very politicized and partisan issue.
Why does it seem to be widening again?
2018 is an election year, and Americans are more polarized than we’ve been in a long time. I expect we’d see similar trends on a variety of policy issues.
Is this reflected in other recent polls? Gallup’s people seemed to minimize the shift’s importance in their interpretive text accompanying the poll, instead stressing that climate concerns continue to register near last year’s record-high all-time number for the public as a whole.
More Americans accept that climate change is occurring than before – we saw a dramatic shift in attitudes during the years of the UT Energy Poll between 2011 and 2017. Regardless of party affiliation, all of us are seeing dramatic wildfires in the Northwest and more extreme hurricanes and storms. Generally I think the conversation has shifted because it’s no longer “Is climate change taking place?” for the vast majority of Americans, but “How much are humans responsible?” and “What can we do about it?”
As someone who cares very deeply about the importance of science in the political discourse, what do you think are the reasons for these changes, especially among Republicans?
On climate change (and on pretty much everything), we’re influenced more by how we feel than facts. So piling on additional scientists and data related to climate change isn’t necessarily going to make a huge difference on public sentiment. As I wrote earlier, climate change is deeply politicized, and Americans are going to turn to the people they trust most, which are often talking heads as well as family and friends on social media that reaffirm our beliefs. In 2018, this environment makes us more polarized than ever.
Was the decline in Republicans’ endorsement of science and level of climate concern a result of a desire to support their party’s leader, the president, at a time of fierce political dichotomy? A failure by the scientific community to communicate the vast consensus skillfully enough? A failure by the news media to reflect that consensus? President Trump’s skill at rallying his backers to his view on the issue? All or some of the above?
It’s all of it – and more. For example, it doesn’t help that the U.S. is having a cold spring either. But on the whole, we can be optimistic. The majority of Americans recognize climate change is real. What matters is what, if anything, we do about it. I’m hopeful.
Gallup’s findings on global warming, 2017 and 2018
In an overwhelming consensus, scientists say global warming is happening, mainly human-caused and already disrupting the climate system. Gallup’s latest annual poll on environment and energy, conducted in March, found wider partisan disagreement about those basic facts of the climate issue and other points.
Bill Dawson is the founder and editor of Texas Climate News.