The researchers compared votes by U.S. senators on a January climate change measure with their constituents' posture based on a new model that extrapolates localized climate views from polling data. The vote was on an amendment to recognize that "(1) climate change is real; and (2) human activity significantly contributes to climate change."
Republican Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, for example, voted no on the amendment. Yet 58 percent of Coloradans accept the scientific evidence for anthropogenic warming. Similarly, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida—a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination—also voted no, though 56 percent of Floridians say climate change is real and man-made. So did Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican from Nevada, where 57 percent would have voted yes.
The politicians' views lag U.S. public opinion, which already trails far behind the scientific community's certainty on the reality of global warming. Various polls have found between 97 to 98 percent of working climate scientists accept the evidence for human-caused climate change.
This gap in climate belief is a "major problem," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. These senators "are some of the key decision makers in American society, and their decisions affect all of us."
The Yale analysis quantifies a growing recognition among political and environmental experts that some lawmakers' positions aren't keeping up as the national climate conversation evolves.
"Markets have been moving much faster than policymakers" on acknowledging and addressing climate change, Sarah Ladislaw, an expert on energy politics and climate change at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said during a panel discussion at the Future of Energy Summit Tuesday in New York.
While partisan gridlock has stifled any significant global warming action in Congress, businesses have launched their own energy efficiency, sustainability and climate resilience programs. They are also investing millions of dollars in climate solutions.
Americans have become increasingly concerned about climate change in recent years—with 63 percent of the public agreeing that global warming is happening, according to Yale data. They are also increasingly supporting climate action. Sixty-one percent of Americans think the federal government should force corporations to pay a price for carbon pollution, according to a poll released Wednesday by Stanford University and Resources for the Future, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
So far the disparity hasn't carried political ramifications for legislators, but that may also be in flux, Leiserowitz said.
"Climate change is not currently at the top of most voters' minds when choosing who to vote for, but that's starting to change," he said. "There are numerous organizations now working to build public and political will for climate action, including making it a more important electoral issue."