The US is wrapped in a cold and brutal winter. Some people have suggested this change of seasons is enough to deny decades of scientific fact, but new data shows the average American is not so naive.
As our planet rapidly warms at an unprecedented rate, the number of people who accept this reality has finally surged to record levels.
In December 2018, more than 7 in 10 Americans said they acknowledge that global warming is happening, the highest percentage recorded in the past decade, according to the Yale program on climate communication.
This means that those who are convinced by this pivotal scientific truth now outnumber deniers by more than 5 to 1.
What’s more, Americans are slowly coming around to the true source of these dramatic changes. By December 2018, those who thought this phenomenon was due entirely to natural causes dropped to just 23 percent, the lowest level since the survey began in 2008.
“After a year of devastating extreme events, dire scientific reports, and growing media coverage of climate change, a record number of Americans are convinced that human-caused global warming is happening, are increasingly worried, and say the issue is personally important to them,” says lead researcher Anthony Leiserowitz, a human geographer at Yale University.
It would be nice to think that public understanding can only improve with the years, but for a while there, things were not looking so good. In 2011, the proportion of Americans who were very worried by global warming hit its lowest point, just three years after the survey began.
Today, however, despite the number of climate change deniers in the White House, public understanding appears to be turning around.
The most recent Yale survey – based on answers from 1,114 American adults – found that “the proportion of Americans who are very worried about global warming has more than tripled since its lowest point in 2011.”
Amid raging wildfires, extreme heat and destructive hurricanes, more and more people are starting to see climate change for what it truly is. Last year, for instance, 65 percent of those surveyed acknowledged that climate change is affecting weather in their nation.
“Global warming used to be viewed as a problem distant in time and space,” said one of the researchers, Ed Maibach, a climate change and public health communications expert at George Mason University.
“But Americans increasingly understand that global warming is here and now and are growing concerned about the threat to themselves, their communities and the nation.”
The findings are cause for celebration, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Even though the vast majority of Americans accept the reality of global warming, only six in ten think these changes are mostly caused by human activity.
And while more than half of Americans understand the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming, less than a quarter know that almost all climate scientists (more than 90 percent) agree on this truth.
This is an extremely important point as expert consensus is often called a ‘gateway belief‘, leading to greater public support for climate action.
“… when in doubt about scientific facts, people are likely to use consensus among domain experts as a heuristic to guide their beliefs and behavior,” concludes a 2013 study on this very topic.
With US carbon emissions once again on the rise, convincing the public of this dire threat is of the utmost importance. It’s a relief to see public opinion is now heading in the right direction; let’s hope it’s not too late.
The report has been published online by the Yale program on climate communication.