Lecture Reveals Americans’ Views on Climate Change

“Wouldn’t it be great if everyone was required to take Climate Change 101?” asked Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication at Yale University. “Unfortunately, it’s never going to happen because the vast majority of people are just too busy.”

Dr. Leiserowitz is an expert on public opinion and engagement with the issues of climate change and the environment. He spoke to LMU students, alumni, faculty and staff on February 9th as part of the College of Business Administration’s Paul A. Grosch Lecture Series where he shared recent trends in Americans' climate change knowledge, attitudes, policy support and behavior, as well as discussed strategies for more effective public engagement.

Climate change is extremely complex – it deals with the operation of the entire planet. A massive disinformation campaign over the last few decades has resulted in vastly differing opinions when it comes to climate change. There are five basic beliefs when it comes to climate change:

1. It’s real
2. It’s us
3. It’s bad
4. Scientists agree
5. There’s hope

The majority of Americans (66%) think that global warming is happening, but only half believe it’s mostly human-caused. When Americans think about global warming, images of melting glaciers and polar bears come to mind. In other words, climate change is seen as a distant problem so very few Americans are worried about it impacting their lives.

Even the President of the United States and Congress don’t consider the environment a priority – global warming shows up at the bottom of the list. And almost no one associates global warming with impacts on global health. Recently, global warming naysayers have dramatically increased. Why? Blame the economy and unemployment, declining media coverage, unusual cold weather, denial industry, Climategate and increasing political polarization.

According to Leiserowitz, American audiences fall into six different categories when it comes to global warming (Oct 2014):

1. Alarmed (13%)
2. Concerned (31%)
3. Cautious (23%)
4. Disengaged (7%)
5. Doubtful (13%)
6. Dismissive (13%)

“Much of the debate about climate change has to do with conflicting values,” said Leiserowitz. “Those with egalitarian world views are most concerned while those with strong individualistic world views are dismissive. Interestingly, everyone supports clean energy because it resonates with independence and self-reliance.”

Though public understanding of climate change declined from 2008 to 2010, we’re starting to see a rebound. Fifty-seven percent of Americans say that global warming is affecting weather in the U.S. People are starting to notice a pattern (ex. California drought, blizzards in the Northeast, 2012 was warmest year on record in U.S.)

“The good news is Americans are starting to connect the dots between climate change and extreme weather, jobs, national security, faith and values,” said Leiserowitz. “The facts are actively interpreted by different audiences, but it’s my job to communicate the scientific consciousness.”

Dr. Leiserowitz conducts research at the global, national and local scales, including many surveys of the American public. He has served as a consultant to the John F. Kennedy School of Government (Harvard University), the United Nations Development Program, the Gallup World Poll, and the World Economic Forum. He is also the host of Climate Connections, a national radio program and podcast.