A recent report by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) examines why Americans are so conflicted about climate change. The report, "Believers, Sympathizers and Skeptics: Why Americans are Conflicted about Climate Change, Environmental Policy and Science" polled 3022 respondents, looking at how Americans rank the importance of climate change compared to other issues including jobs and frames the responses in terms of individual political and spiritual experiences as shown here:
Employment issues concern 22 percent
Increasing gap between rich and poor concern 18 percent
Health care concern 17 percent
Budget deficit concern 13 percent
Immigration reform concern 10 percent
Rising cost of education concern 9 percent
Climate change concern 5 percent
When looking at environmental concerns, 29 percent of Americans point to soil, air and water pollution as key problems compared to 25 percent who are concerned about climate change and 23 percent that are concerned about water shortages and drought.
Now, let's look at how PRRI divided Americans based on their beliefs about climate change and the percentage of respondents that took the positions:
1.) Believers: 46 percent of Americans believe that the earth is getting warmer and that these changes are a result of human activity.
2.) Sympathizers: 25 percent of Americans believe that the earth is getting warmer but that changes are due to natural fluctuations or due to unknown causes.
3.) Skeptics: 26 percent of Americans believe that there is no solid evidence that the earth's temperature has risen over the past few decades. The reason that one-third of Skeptics gave for not believing in global temperature increases was because they have not noticed a change in weather around them.
Not surprisingly, political leaning has a substantial impact on beliefs about climate change. Of Democrats polled, 65 percent are classified as Believers, 20 percent are Sympathizers and 13 percent are Skeptics. Of Republicans polled, 22 percent are Believers, 28 percent are Sympathizers and 46 percent are Skeptics. Looking even further to the right, of Tea Party affiliates, 23 percent are Believers, 23 percent are Sympathizers and 53 percent are Skeptics.
To gain a better understanding of the extent to which Americans are concerned about climate change, PRRI created the Climate Change Concern Index which used two questions:
1.) do respondents believe that climate change is a crisis?
2.) do respondents believe that climate change will have a negative impact on them personally?
Here is a pie chart that shows how Americans fit into the Climate Change Concern Index:
According to the Climate Change Concern Index, race, political leanings and religious affiliation has a strong impact on how concerned Americans are about climate change:
1.) Race: 46 percent of Hispanic Americans are very concerned about climate change, 25 percent of black Americans are very concerned about climate change and 23 percent of white Americans are concerned about climate change. When it comes to the personal impact of climate change, 41 percent of Hispanic Americans feel that they will be personally harmed by climate change compared to 36 percent of black Americans and 18 percent of white Americans which is interesting given the number of wealthy white Americans that have oceanside property.
2.) Political leaning: 41 percent of Democrats are very concerned about climate change, 14 percent of Republicans are very concerned about climate change and 28 percent of Independents are very concerned about climate change. When it comes to the personal impact of climate change, 44 percent of Democrats believe that Americans will be harmed a great deal as a result of climate change compared to 18 percent of Republicans, 33 percent of Independents and 21 percent of Tea Party members.
3.) Religion: Concern about climate change varies widely based on religious affiliation as shown on this graphic:
White evangelical protestants and white Catholic respondents had far fewer respondents that were very concerned about climate change and far more of their adherents were very unconcerned about climate change compared to their Hispanic and black religious peers. It is also interesting to note that 29 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans are concerned about the personal impact of climate change compared to 17 percent of white mainline Protestants, white evangelical Protestants, white Catholics and Jewish Americans. Looking at the differentiation between Believers vs. Sympathizers vs. Skeptics, the study found that only 11 percent of Believers are white evangelical Protestants compared to 22 percent of Sympathizers and 28 percent of Skeptics. As well, only 29 percent of Believers state that the Bible is the literal word of God compared to 41 percent of Sympathizers and 41 percent of Skeptics.
The study even looked at the terminology used to describe the issue. To assess the influence of the terminology used, half of the sample were asked about whether they thought that the issue of "global warming" was getting more attention than it deserved and the other half were asked whether they thought that the issue of "climate change" was getting more attention than it deserved. Here are the results:
Using the "climate change" descriptor:
- 54 percent of Americans disagreed and 43 percent agreed that "climate change" was getting too much attention.
Using the "global warming" descriptor:
- 50 percent of Americans disagreed and 49 percent agreed that "global warming" was getting too much attention.
It's interesting to note that even relatively subtle changes in terminology can have an impact on a person's perception of the issue. Drilling through the data, the study found that 38 percent of Democrats thought that the issue of "global warming" was receiving too much attention compared to only 24 percent for "climate change". Among Tea Party members, 75 percent agreed that "global warming" was getting too much attention compared to only 64 percent for "climate change".
I found the statistical breakdown of climate change/global warming perceptions to be extremely interesting, particularly when one looks at the impact of both politics and religion on one's feelings about the issue. I also found it rather interesting that one-third of those that are skeptical about global warming is because they have not noticed a change in weather around them and that a significant minority of white Evangelical Protestants have chosen to totally ignore science because it clashes with their religious beliefs, particularly the 77 percent who believe that recent natural disasters are a result of the Biblical "end times" as described in the Book of Revelations.