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Most Americans Want Scientists, Not Politicians, to Lead Climate Debate

The latest results from an ongoing Yale/George Mason study indicate that Americans want experts to explain how human activities are altering the climate

Jul 5, 2011
The melting Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park

WASHINGTON—Americans nationwide still have a quiver full of queries for experts about climate change.

But the content of their questions — and the sources they are likely to trust with answers — vary depending on their level of concern and engagement with the issue.

That's one of the latest conclusions drawn from an ongoing and wide-ranging study that has tracked how each of the "Six Americas" interprets the threats of global warming since the last presidential election. Researchers at Yale and George Mason universities first identified those half dozen separate audiences after their initial autumn 2008 survey.

Results from the latest questionnaire conducted in the spring, the fourth in a series, were released in late June. They indicate that most Americans want those in the know to explain how they can be sure human activities, rather than natural changes in the environment, are altering the climate.

Drilling down deeper, the questions become more nuanced depending on a respondent's "Six Americas" ranking.

For instance, the 39 percent in the "alarmed" and "concerned" categories want to ask what nations could do to curb heat-trapping gases and if there's still time to act. The 50 percent in the "cautious," "doubtful" and "dismissive" sphere want to hear how global warming is caused by human activities. And the remaining 10 percent in the "disengaged" grouping want to learn what harm global warming will cause if it is actually happening.

Researchers categorized questionnaire respondents by their levels of belief and concern about global warming, with "alarmed" at one end of the scale and "dismissive" at the other. Here's how the latest survey sorts the 981 adults surveyed between April 23 and May 12: alarmed: 12 percent; concerned: 27 percent; cautious: 25 percent; disengaged: 10 percent; doubtful: 15 percent; and dismissive: 10 percent.

how Americans feel about climate change, by percent"What we're finding out is that there are very different conversations taking place on this issue," Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, tells SolveClimate News in an interview.

"It's sort of like throwing darts in a dark room. Unfortunately, unless you understand that people are coming in from different perspectives and starting points, you might hit the target occasionally but you'll probably miss. And there’s a good chance you'll do collateral damage."

What's Inside

The latest iteration of the survey, Global Warming's Six Americas, is a joint project of the Yale program headed by Leiserowitz and the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University in Virginia.

Funding is provided by the Surdna Foundation, the 11th Hour Project and the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment.

Its 57 pages are chockablock with figures and 30 tables detailing how the topic of climate change resonates — or doesn't — across America. In an interview with SolveClimate News, Leiserowitz discusses two key pieces of people's perceptions covered in the study. One part examines resources they count on for credible information about global warming. The other looks at how receptive people are to climate and energy policies that hit close to home.

"What we're interested in finding out is why some people get engaged in these issues and why others dismiss them outright," Leiserowitz says. "We want to understand how the public understands or misunderstands the causes, consequences and potential solutions to climate change."

The Trust Factor

Oddly enough, much of the broad information many Americans absorb about climate change is disseminated by the two sources they trust the least — the mainstream news media and their own congressional representatives. Mainstream media and federal legislators finish at the bottom of the barrel — ninth and tenth — just below television weather reporters, among the list of 10 choices the Yale/George Mason survey presented to respondents.

At the other end of scale, respondents offer more stellar marks to government agencies as trustworthy sources of climate change data. For instance, three-quarters of them have high regard for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as scientists overall.

Not surprisingly, those figures drop to 25 percent and 30 percent, respectively, among the "dismissive" audience.

A majority of those surveyed also had kudos for climate change information dispensed by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Park Service and the Department of Energy.

Perhaps expectedly, trust in what President Obama espouses about global warming was highly polarized. Survey results reveal that 77 percent of the "alarmed" say they trust him, compared to 21 percent among the "doubtful" and 3 percent of the "dismissive."

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