More Americans than ever before — 54 percent, recent polling data shows — are alarmed or concerned about climate change, which scientists warn is a planetary emergency unfolding in the form of searing heat, prolonged drought, massive wildfires, monstrous storms, and other extremes.
These kinds of disasters are becoming increasingly costly and impossible to ignore. Yet even as the American public becomes progressively more worried about the climate crisis, a shrinking but vocal slice of the country continues to dismiss these concerns, impeding efforts to address the monumental global challenge.
Weather Extremes Driving Climate Concern
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. has already seen 16 billion-dollar weather disasters this year, including horrific fires in the West and powerful storms like Hurricanes Sally, Laura, and Delta on the Gulf Coast.
This reality of intensifying climate disasters in part helps explain the rise in concern on this issue among the American public, says Ed Maibach of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. Maibach is part of a research team that since 2008 has surveyed and categorized American attitudes on climate change into six different groups that they call the “Six Americas.”
The latest update to this research based on polling done in April this year found that Americans who fall into the “alarmed” category outnumber those who dismiss the climate problem nearly 4 to 1. This “Alarmed” group now represents 26 percent of the public, while the group at the far opposite end of the spectrum, those hard-core climate science deniers who researchers categorize as “Dismissive,” are roughly 7 percent of the U.S. population. The sizes of these two polar opposite groups have shifted significantly in just the last five years, with the “Alarmed” category more than doubling (up from 11 percent in 2015) and the Dismissive category declining by nearly half (down from 12 percent in 2015).
Looking for some good news today? Here it is: the last category of the @YaleClimateComm Six Americas, the Dismissives who have stubbornly remained at about 10% of the population for a decade, are down to 7% while Alarmed+Concerned=54%. This, in Apr, in the middle of COVID. pic.twitter.com/Ya62JPf1uO— Prof. Katharine Hayhoe (@KHayhoe) October 8, 2020
Today, the Alarmed (26%) outnumber the Dismissive (7%) nearly 4 to 1. In 2014, they were tied at 1 to 1. That's a *major shift* in the political, social and cultural climate of climate change. @YaleClimateComm pic.twitter.com/inJqQ9UZjY— Anthony Leiserowitz (@ecotone2) October 9, 2020
“Overall, Americans are becoming more worried about global warming, more engaged with the issue, and more supportive of climate solutions,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which leads the “Six Americas” research, said in an email describing the updated polling numbers.
Despite this growing awareness of the climate problem among the public, Americans who fall into the Dismissive category continue to have outsized influence in the public discourse, especially on the political right.
“However, because conservative media organizations prominently feature Dismissive politicians, pundits, and industry officials, most Americans overestimate the prevalence of Dismissive beliefs among other Americans,” Leiserowitz explained by email.
The “Dismissive” viewpoint is not only overrepresented in conservative media, but it has infiltrated the highest levels of the federal government, particularly under the Trump administration and among many Republican lawmakers. It has become part of the conservative orthodoxy to question human influence on the climate and downplay the seriousness of the threat.
The 2020 Republican National Convention failed to acknowledge the climate crisis, for example, and conservative Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett raised alarm bells with her dismissive comments on the issue during her Senate confirmation hearing last week. In follow-up questioning from Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee released this week, Barrett refused to answer straightforward questions about climate science, instead responding that “the Supreme Court has described ‘climate change’ as a ‘controversial subject.’”
The science of climate change is not controversial, however. As climate scientist Michael Mann said during a recent interview that aired on CBS’s 60 Minutes, “There's about as much scientific consensus about human-caused climate change as there is about gravity.”
“There's about as much scientific consensus about human-caused climate change as there is about gravity,” says geophysicist Michael Mann in response to President Trump’s questioning the science behind climate change. https://t.co/hTFI9EZoVQ pic.twitter.com/4YSxRMpD4w— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) October 4, 2020
How is it, then, that climate science denial remains so influential in America even when the “Dismissive” group represents less than 10 percent of the population?
One explanation is the role of right-wing media echoing climate science denial talking points and disseminating disinformation.
“There’s no question that Fox News punches way above its weight in terms of spreading disinformation and keeping doubt alive among the public,” Maibach told DeSmog in an interview.
Another big factor, he added, particularly when it comes to Republicans in Congress, is the money pouring into election campaigns from vested interests opposed to climate policies.
“Americans for Prosperity, the Koch Brothers’ network, dark money interests, they are absolutely willing to fund extremely conservative Republican candidates who are toeing their economically self-interested line that either climate change isn’t real or it’s not human-caused or it’s not very serious anyway,” Maibach said.
“There’s no question that the unholy alliance between the fossil fuel industry and conservative news outlets and conservative politicians has allowed the deferral of American society dealing with this issue for 30 or more years,” he added.
America Misled by Big Oil
The fossil fuel industry in particular not only funds politicians who refuse to take climate action seriously, but has spent decades distorting the public’s understanding of the climate threat in order to stave off policy responses and preserve the industry’s business model.
An influential 2017 study from Harvard researchers Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran examined 40 years of both private and public communications on climate change from ExxonMobil, finding that the more public-facing the materials were, the more they expressed doubts about the science.
The study concluded that Exxon misled the public, but it doesn’t stop there. An ExxonMobil executive recently published an attempt to discredit their original study. According to new commentary from Oreskes and Supran which responds to that executive's critiques, the oil company’s attempt to smear their peer-reviewed research further demonstrates its disingenuous behavior.
ExxonMobil just attacked our 2017 research study, in which I and @NaomiOreskes showed they misled the public about climate change.— Geoffrey Supran (@GeoffreySupran) October 16, 2020
Here's our peer-reviewed response: https://t.co/RceYuKJLWe.
“ExxonMobil is now misleading the public about its history of misleading the public,” Oreskes and Supran argue in the Guardian on October 16.
They, along with Maibach and two other colleagues, called out the fossil fuel industry’s deliberate efforts to mislead Americans on climate change in a report published last year. This “America Misled” report explained that companies like ExxonMobil “polluted the information landscape” and spent “hundreds of millions of dollars confusing the public and delaying life-saving action.”
As Supran told DeSmog, fossil fuel companies have worked alongside conservative voices in media, think tanks, and politics to amplify both anti-regulatory ideology and distrust in science in the public sphere.
“One of the most pernicious consequences of decades of anti-science, anti-policy climate denial and delay by fossil fuel interests, conservative billionaires, and their networks of think tanks and allies in politics and media has been that it has fomented public distrust in fundamental institutions like science, journalism, and government, and that this has mutually reinforced libertarian, anti-regulatory ideologies,” Supran said via email. “You can see the ramifications playing out all around us, from a climate-denying President, to paltry and patchwork climate policies, to a public and media only just beginning to wake up at the eleventh hour as our climate collapses around us. This war on science and truth has cost us decades and committed us to irreversible global heating.”
He said the fossil fuel industry’s attempts to delay climate action are ongoing. Even though most companies have pivoted away from outright climate change denial, they continue to mislead the public in more nuanced ways.
“What we are now seeing is a broad rhetorical shift by the fossil fuel regime towards more subtle and subversive tactics for delaying climate policies: a combination of misleading public relations and backroom lobbying that greenwash the industry’s image while undermining meaningful action,” Supran said. “But it's denial by any other name. Because although the rhetoric and tactics have evolved, the goal — and the result so far — remains the same: inaction.”
Climate a Voting Issue in 2020
Despite this ongoing influence of climate science denial and disinformation, public opinion overall in America is shifting towards understanding that climate change is happening, is dangerous, and must be addressed.
“The public is increasingly waking up to the realities of climate change, and they are increasingly connecting the realities of climate change to their political choices,” Maibach said.
Public opinion polling from Maibach and colleagues over the last year shows that more than 40 percent of registered voters say global warming will be a “very important” issue they consider in the 2020 presidential election. This trend is consistent with results of other recent polling.
Furthermore, according to public opinion polling conducted this year by researchers at Stanford University and the nonprofit Resources for the Future, the climate change “issue public,” or group of Americans most concerned about and engaged on this issue, is at the highest level yet at 25 percent. That number is consistent with the size of the “Alarmed” category per the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication’s polling this year.
“In 2020, the global warming issue public made up an all-time high of 25 percent of Americans, up from 9 percent in 1997, showing that a growing body of people care deeply about climate change and may be likely to cast their votes based on candidates’ climate policy platforms,” the Stanford and Resources For the Future research report explains.
As Maibach put it, “Climate change was on the ballot in the 2020 primary season, and it is still on the ballot in the 2020 general election.”