By BRANDI BUCHMAN
(CN) – America’s debate over climate change goes far beyond the question of human influence and degree, and extends to disagreements over the validity of climate science and whether scientists working in it can be trusted, a new Pew Research Center study reveals.
The Pew Research Center conducted its survey on the politics of climate change in May and early June, just as the presidential primaries were ending, and about a month before Republicans and Democrats gathered for their respective presidential nominating conventions.
The results of that effort found that 36 percent of Americans described themselves as deeply concerned about global climate change, and that those who described their sentiments that way tended to be either Democrats or independents who lean toward the Democratic Party.
The partisan divide was most evident, however, when the survey turned to climate science and those who work in the field.
Seven-in-ten liberal Democrats said they trust climate scientists to give full and accurate information about the causes of climate change, compared with just 15 percent of conservative Republicans.
Some 54 percent of liberal Democrats say climate scientists understand the causes of climate change very well. This compares with only 11 percent among conservative Republicans and 19 percent among moderate/liberal Republicans.
Liberal Democrats, more than any other party/ideology group, perceive widespread consensus among climate scientists about the causes of warming. But only 16 percent of conservative Republicans say almost all scientists agree on this, compared with 55 percent of liberal Democrats.
Democrats, not surprisingly given the previous statistics, place more faith in the work of climate scientists and their understanding of the phenomenon.
Fifty-five percent of Democrats said climate research reflects the best available evidence most of the time (compared to nine percent of Republicans), and 68 percent said climate scientists understand very well whether or not climate change is occurring.
Even the Republicans who believe the Earth is warming are much less likely than Democrats to expect severe harms to the Earth’s ecosystem, the study found.
On the flip side, conservative Republicans who participated in the survey were more inclined to say climate research findings are influenced by scientists’ desire to advance their careers (57 percent) or their own political leanings (54 percent) most of the time.
Small minorities of liberal Democrats say either influence occurs most of the time (16 percent and 11 percent, respectively).
But the wrinkle in the findings was that regardless of party affiliation, only 20 percent of those who accepted the current climate science said their concern over climate change inspired them to become people who “live in a way that protects the environment all the time.”
People who more frequently engage in environmentally protective activities however, like attending park clean up or driving a hybrid vehicle, more consistently match that of the U.S. population overall, the Pew researchers found.
What this shows, said Janet Swim, a psychology professor at Penn State University, is that “most people support caring for the environment and perceive themselves in a positive light,” but there isn’t total clarity over “what is meant by ‘everyday environmentalist.”
“There’s a strong norm, for instance, to not litter. So if this is the definition of everyday environmentalists, then the public may see themselves [that way],” Swim said. “Plus, people can do ‘everyday’ behaviors for reasons other than concern about climate change.”
The professor explained that regardless of their age and political affiliation, adults tend to place emphasis on concepts like “the sanctity of life, the need to responsibly manage the environment for future generations [and] the belief that we should be frugal and not waste our resources.
But beneath all of it, Swim said is a pervasive belief among the same people that there’s little they can personally do to make a real difference on a global issue.
Swim said another factor leading to the apparent disconnect between people’s beliefs and their actions is their feeling that they have no real influence over their communities or their government.
- Sterling Burnett, a research fellow at the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based conservative think tank, sees the survey data as inherently questionable.
“Based on the Heartland Institute’s view of the evidence, there are open questions concerning the extent to which humans are driving climate change,” he said. “And it seems to me that what this poll shows is that when people examine the issue, when they actually engage and they’re interested in, then they’re able to really do something,” Burnett said.
That’s said, Burnett was doubtful about one of the generally hopeful notes of the report — that there’s a real possibility of a cooperative bipartisan effort to stem climate change.
“You’re never going to get everybody under the same tent. There are going to be fringes on both sides. Nothing we can do about that,” Burnett said.
He argues that even among Republicans who are concerned about climate change, the threat of the creation of new regulations will be enough to tamp down their enthusiasm for action.
“For groups that say, if you don’t do what we say, it’s not enough or it’s not good enough, in my opinion, they’re not worried about climate. They’re worried about controlling human actions because they think they know what is best for everybody and how everyone ought to live. Climate change is a very convenient vehicle to exercise that control,” Burnett said.
The Pew Center survey captured some of the resistance to new regulations of which Burnett spoke. In the study, those who identified themselves as Democrats were far more likely to embrace concepts like a carbon tax or participation in international agreements to reduce carbon emissions, than were Republicans.
“If climate science supporters really want to solve problems, and if they’re open to people still prospering and rising out of the poverty they live in and having nice things that people in the west have, then there are things we can do,” Burnett said.
As he expounded on this view, Burnett drew a distinction between the warming of the planet and sea-level rise — which climate scientists say are inextricably related.
“Nobody’s concerned in reality about a 1 degree rise in temperature. People don’t retire to Minnesota, they retire to Florida. Warmer is better than colder,” Burnett said. “What they’re worried about is the impact of that possible rise in sea water. Will it make hurricanes more intense? Will it make them longer lasting? You can take actions to deal with the impact of climate change without strangling fossil fuels.”
At the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Washington, D.C., the non-profit’s Director of Sustainability and Engagement, Amy Morsch, said the Pew research contains a “particularly interesting result to note.”
“Respondents, regardless of their party affiliation, share very strong agreement that solar and wind should be expanded,” Morsch said. “This is encouraging as these two industries are burgeoning here in the United States. They’re creating jobs, reducing demand on water resources and offering a viable clean energy alternative.”
Morsch said more than anything at this point, “[Renewable energy development] will need a stable, supportive policy environment,” she said.
“We see a role for everyone, individuals can adopt behaviors and technologies to reduce their personal impacts and stay engaged with their policy makers. Companies can develop and deploy the innovations that we need for a low-carbon future, and our policymakers can set the policy and market signals that enable the transition,” Morsch said.
Bob Perciasepe, the center’s president, issued a statement on Nov. 9, urging President-elect Donald Trump to “take time to study the issue of climate change and hear a broad range of perspectives.”
He also said he believes if Trump does so, he will “find that a majority of Americans across the political spectrum support stronger climate action.”
“Business leaders recognize that extreme weather is driving up costs and that clean energy is creating economic opportunities essential to America’s future … smart investments and technological innovation have started America on a clean energy transition,” he said.
He advised Trump to build on that momentum.
But even if the president-elect were to say tomorrow that he’s in favor of pursuing a pro-active policy addressing climate change, that doesn’t make the challenges ahead any easier to address.
The bottom line, H. Sterling Burnett said, is how much people truly care about the issue and how much are they willing to spend on it?
Janet Swim contends that going forward it will be important to differentiate debates about climate science from debates about solutions “in order to curtail the tendency [Americans have] to discount the need to address climate change and associated problems because of their dislike of proposed solutions.”