Mark McCaffrey's picture

All over the Map

Do you take global warming seriously and think it is caused by humans? Do you know a lot about the topic? How do you feel about specific strategies to limit its impacts? And is it extremely important to you personally?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most people believe that climate change is happening and many people consider themselves to know “a lot” or “a moderate amount” about the topic. Yet, as a new survey confirms, few—from a high of 16% in New Mexico to a low of 3% in Iowa—indicate that it is extremely important to them personally.

The poll was conducted by Jon Krosnick and Bo MacInnis at Stanford University and recently presented at the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change convened by Rep. Henry Waxman and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse in Washington DC. They “interviewed truly random samples of the American adult population” in 46 states (missing were North Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, and Hawaii). Maps of how the states responded to different questions are available here

As has been shown in some of Krosnick’s previous work, Americans accept that climate change is happening—at least 75% acknowledge it is happening, including in states such as Texas (84%) and Oklahoma (87%), which have experienced massive droughts in recent years. 

Large majorities also accept that past global warming has been caused by humans, with the lowest being Utah (65%), followed by Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina (68%). In the top tier were Rhode Island (91%) and Maryland (84%), along with New York, California, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, and North Carolina—all with over 80% of their respondents acknowledging human attribution to climate change. 

Should government limit greenhouse gas emissions from industry? Two-thirds or more say yes. Should the U.S. take action to address the problem regardless of what other nations do? Only Utah has a plurality (48%) saying no, while even red states such as Kansas (77%), Nebraska (73%), and North Carolina (67%) said yes. 

In his presentation to the task force, Krosnick suggested that it was unnecessary to quiz people on their knowledge of climate change because they have a good sense about these issues. But that’s not so clear. People may think that they know a great deal about a topic and have strong opinions about it, but whether they have the knowledge and knowhow to make informed decisions regarding that topic is another issue.

That said, the percentage of Americans who consider themelves “highly knowledgeable” about global warming according to the survey range from 69% in Vermont to 29% in West Virginia, where nevertheless three quarters of those surveyed felt that global warming has been caused by humans and it will pose serious problems for the nation.

The fact that so few people find global warming extremely important to them personally may have something to do with the range of options offered: extremely important, very important, somewhat important, not too important, or not at all important. What’s the difference between “extremely” and “very”? How a respondent answers might also depend on what’s going on in his or her life at the moment. Someone who is dealing with a death in the family, trauma, or financial ruin might be so overwhelmed with that as to feel that global warming isn’t important at all.

The disconnect between not feeling that concerned about climate change on a personal level while acknowledging that we need to work together to deal with it is where we seem to remain stuck. Overcoming manufactured doubt, the daunting challenge of altering our current fossil-fuel driven status quo, and readying ourselves for changes already underway will require deeper levels of awareness and engagement, knowledge and knowhow. But at least on the surface, Krosnick’s research shows the ground is fertile and ready for change. 

For more, be sure to watch Krosnick’s presentation on YouTube