The proportion of Americans who believe climate change is real and human-caused is higher than it has been in a decade, according to an annual survey conducted in part by a Muhlenberg College political scientist.
Seventy-three percent of Americans surveyed in the Spring 2018 National Survey on Energy and the Environment believe there is solid scientific evidence of climate change. Sixty percent of the 751 surveyed said they believe humans are at least partially responsible for the rising temperatures.
“One reason is simply the evidence,” said Chris Borick, a Muhlenberg College political scientist who helped launch the survey in 2008. “The evidence of declining polar ice that seems stronger every year. I think Americans are now, on the whole, coming to terms that we’re living in a different climate.”
Andrea Wittchen, co-founder of a Lehigh Valley-based sustainability consulting firm, iSpring, said her corporate customers’ views on environmental sustainability have “shifted dramatically” in the last decade. Now, corporate leaders understand sustainability and climate change, and are more likely to seek her help meeting environmental goals.
“It has become more of a pull situation instead of a push,” she said.
The term climate change is used to describe the Earth’s recent warming trend. Average temperatures continue to warm, particularly since the 1970s, which climatologists attribute to humans’ fossil fuel use. Burning fossil fuels increases the amount of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping, greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Climate change will also mean the Earth is more likely to experience extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and storms, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
Belief in climate change research has oscillated since 2008, the year Borick and Berry Rabe, a University of Michigan public policy professor, launched the National Surveys on Energy and the Environment.
Critics of climate change science sometimes argue the Earth’s climate is always in flux, and the current warming trend can’t be attributed to humans. In November, White House spokesman Raj Shah said it was uncertain how the Earth’s atmosphere will react to greenhouse gas emissions, according to The Washington Post.
In 2008, 72 percent of people believed there was solid evidence showing the Earth’s climate is changing, according to the survey. That dipped to a low of 52 percent in 2010.
Political, environmental and economic factors correlated with the dip in Americans’ belief in climate change in 2009 and 2010, Borick said.
“You saw more and more individuals at that time, from individuals in Congress to interest groups, really making an effort to build doubt about the existence of global warming,” he said.
Politics remains the biggest indication of whether a person will believe in climate change , Borick said. Democrats are considerably more likely than Republicans to believe that climate change is occurring and that humans are the cause of it.
According to the survey:
- 90 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of Republicans believe there is solid evidence of climate change.
- 78 percent of Democrats and 35 percent of Republicans believe humans are causing the changing climate.
Political ideology is “the single most important factor in predicting one’s views on climate change,” Borick said.
That’s one reason it’s important to gauge public opinion about the topic, Borick argued. Politicians and other leaders can use the information to argue their side.
“If you want to change opinion or help educate, maybe knowing where people are at is valuable,” he said.
Americans also experienced cold, snowy winters and an economic recession in 2009 and 2010, when belief in climate change dipped.
“We call it an ‘aversion to solutions,’” Borick said. “If we have to deal with it, it might cost money. Sometimes when people hear that they think ‘Well, maybe it’s not such a big problem,’ or ‘it doesn’t exist.’”
The recent record-high belief in climate change science corresponds with record-high temperatures observed by climatologists this year. May was the hottest May ever recorded, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It also was the month many people answered the survey.
People who fill out the survey often point to their own observations when indicating their belief in climate change, Borick said. Some have noticed their gardens growing differently, or dwindling snowfall.
“Experiences with weather do have influence on views of climate change,” Borick said. “I think it’s part of the equation that we saw this [heat] wave.”
Wittchen said many of her climate-conscious customers are more interested in preparing for the effects of climate change — such as heat waves or drought — than curbing greenhouse gas emissions to help prevent it.
“They think of it in terms of resilience and risk management and avoided cost,” she said. “We try to layer on top [by asking] ‘What can you do to be proactive?’”