Last week, amid all the focus on presidential polls, a number of different polls came out exploring how one of the issues in the presidential campaign is perceived by voters. Climate change has been discussed in both presidential debates so far, and the candidates’ positions on the issue are radically different (watch Ars for more on that). But as the polls show, these differences reflect fundamental differences between the members of the two parties.
In a little bit of good news, however, there is a group of people who identify themselves as concerned about the climate. But even within this group there is a partisan divide.
Don’t trust those scientists
One of the new polls comes from the Pew Research Center, which surveyed more than 1,500 American adults (the survey has a 4 percent margin of error). In addition to answering questions about their views on climate science and policy, participants were asked about their political affiliations, which were divided into four categories based on strong or moderate affiliation with one of the two major parties.
A number of studies, using different methodologies, have all shown that an overwhelming majority of scientists accept the evidence for human-induced climate change. But obviously the public doesn’t know that. Barely more than half of Liberal Democrats say there is a scientific consensus. Less than a third of moderate Democrats do, and only about 10 to 15 percent of all Republicans. Similar numbers were obtained when Pew asked whether scientists knew if climate change is happening, what causes it and the best ways to tackle it. None of these issues are scientifically controversial, but only 11 percent of conservative Republicans think we understand the cause.
Part of the problem is that the same pattern happens when you ask people if climate scientists are swayed by the evidence. Only 55 percent of liberal Democrats agreed. The numbers fell to 39 percent, 30 percent, and 9 percent as you moved across the spectrum to conservative Republicans. Instead, more than half of this group felt climate scientists were most influenced by a desire to advance their careers or their own political beliefs.
Shockingly, 23 to 34 percent felt the scientists were most influenced by a “desire to help their industries.” Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any data on the industry these people think climate scientists work for.
Unsurprisingly, the same partisan divide has been reflected in people’s beliefs in a variety of consequences — some notably already happening — as well as the effectiveness of different solutions.
One cause for optimism is that Pew identified a segment of the public (36 percent) who self-identified as deeply concerned about climate change, a quarter of whom were Republicans. In general, this group was much more inclined to accept the consequences and solutions mentioned above. But there was still a partisan divide, as less than half of Republicans in this group accepted that humanity was driving climate change; 87 percent of Democrats did.
All this suggests that at least some of the people who said they are concerned about climate issues are concerned because they don’t believe there are none.
Regardless of how they felt about the climate, the Pew found that more than 80 percent of the American public is in favor of expanding solar and wind energy. That’s probably for the best since the economy dictates they’ll get it.
The second poll, from the Associated Press-NORC Center at the University of Chicago, takes a closer look at energy policy. It also finds some partisan gaps, with 84 percent of Democrats favoring government intervention, nearly double the percentage of Republicans. Still, the 43 percent of Republicans who want action on climate is much higher than most numbers in the Pew survey. And when framed as a question of whether the US should continue working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Republican support reached 77 percent (Democrats were at 91 percent).
How to get there, however, was less certain. About two-thirds of Democrats and 46 percent of Republicans favored reducing coal use through federal action. This reduction is already happening, but mainly because of the low costs of fracked natural gas. Yet 40 percent of the American public has no opinion at all about fracking, while only 13 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans support it.
The AP-NORC poll also asks if people are willing to pay a monthly fee to tackle climate change. More than 40 percent were unwilling to pay even a dollar. Still, about 30 percent were willing to pay as much as $20, and 20 percent as much as $50. Again, Democratic Party affiliation correlated with willingness to pay.
Overall, the polls highlight a few things. One is that the type of question being asked seems to make a big difference. When asked strictly what policies will be effective in tackling climate change, most people were pessimistic about them. But when asked whether they actually wanted to follow policies such as promoting renewable energy and restricting coal, there was much more enthusiasm, regardless of political affiliation.
Politics still clearly mattered, though, and not just in cases where the questions asked people to make individual financial sacrifices. Instead, the issue has become so politicized that people on one side of the political spectrum don’t even believe the scientific evidence, but instead suspect climate scientists of acting out of various forms of self-interest, including some that have no rational basis. It’s hard to see how we can get from there to a state where scientific evidence regains a foothold of trust.