Over the course of recent years, polls that examine American attitudes on global warming suggest that climate denial may be dying. It would appear that Americans have gone through the five stages in what has been called the cycle of climate acceptance. This is an adaptation of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ seminal work, “On Death and Dying.” The first step is denial, followed by anger, depression, bargaining and finally acceptance. While many of these stages overlap or co-occur, the general trend from denial to acceptance appears to be borne out by polling data.
After the recession of 2008, Americans were in no mood to consider let alone embrace the veracity of climate science. They were preoccupied with their short term economic well-being and the cataclysmic implications of climate change were simply too much to consider. In short, they were in a total state of denial. This is the conclusion of research by Scruggs and Benegal. They claim that since 2008, “the public’s concern about climate change has declined dramatically.” These authors cited research by the Woods Institute for the Environment, which showed that belief in climate change was stopped or reversed after the recession.
Tea party anger
Angry vitriolic obstructionism has been one of the defining features of the Republican Party. This anger was most vehemently personified by the angry arch-conservatives known as the Tea Party. However, even the mainstream of the Republican Party began to organize coordinated attacks on climate science and they further confused Americans with rants chalked full of misinformation. Thanks in large measure to their war on science, belief in climate change remained static or declined among the general population.
A study conducted by Yale University and George Mason University highlighted the ignorance of the Tea Party. The study found that while 62 percent of Democrats accepted the science of climate change, only 19 percent of “Tea Party” members said that human activity is the cause of global warming.
Despite the hate filled theatrics of Republican climate deniers, extreme weather including hurricanes and tornadoes caused a slight increase in the number of Americans calling for government action to combat climate change.
Apathy and depression
In 2013, the mood in the US turned to apathy. Americans ignored the issue or dismissed it as a conspiracy theory. According to a 2013 Public Policy Poll, three out of every eight (37 percent) registered voters in the US considered global warming a hoax. Those who dismissed climate change as a hoax were far more likely to support the Republican Party. While 58 percent of Republicans said that it was a hoax, only 11 percent of Democrats agreed.
Despite these troubling findings, by the end of 2013, polls showed that there was growing belief in global warming even among Republicans.
By 2014, it was getting increasingly difficult to argue that the planet was not getting warmer. So climate deniers in the Republican Party adopted a new approach. When asked about global warming, they would say “I am not a scientist”, which is a form of climate agnosticism. Republicans began to bargain with the facts, accepting some parts of the science while rejecting others. They would say things like, “maybe the Earth is warming, but it is not due to human activities.”
Nonetheless, Americans began to move beyond the partisan politics of the GOP. A 2014 Pew Research Center Poll indicated that 71 percent of Americans thought the government should do whatever it takes to protect the environment. An April 2014 poll revealed that Americans were supportive of emissions limits for coal fired power plants. This last point was corroborated by a number of subsequent polls including one from the Washington Post and ABC News, and another from the Wall Street Journal and NBC News.
As reported in the Washington Post in November 2014, a Yale Project on Climate Change Communication poll found that 83 percent of Americans indicated that they think the country should make efforts to reduce global warming, “even if it comes with economic costs.”
Over the course of 2015, polls show that a growing number of Americans are beginning to accept the veracity of climate change. A review of recent polls in Cleantechnica reveals that Americans now demand a government that will address climate change.
A January 2015 NYTimes/Stanford University poll found that: “An overwhelming majority of the American public, including half of Republicans, support government action to curb Climate Change, and two-thirds of Americans said they were more likely to vote for political candidates who campaign on fighting climate change.”
A January 2015 poll by Benenson Strategy Group indicated that “72 percent of likely 2016 voters said they support the United States signing on to an international agreement on climate change.” An April 2015 ABC News/Washington Post poll by Langer Research said that “Americans by 59-31 percent say they want the next president to be someone who favors government action to address climate change, and 58 percent call it an important issue.”
Contrary to the Republicans’ agnostic bargaining position on climate change, Americans now expect their political leaders to understand science. A new public opinion poll commissioned by Research America and ScienceDebate.org, and conducted by Zogby Analytics, states that 87 percent of Americans said that they think candidates running for Congress or president should have a basic understanding of the science that informs public policy decisions.
There are indications that Americans may be beginning to catch up to the rest of the world when it comes to accepting the veracity of climate change. As reported by Time, an October 2015 poll from National Surveys on Energy and Environment indicates that the denial of climate change has hit record lows in the U.S. Only 16 percent of Americans believe there is not enough evidence to prove global climate change is real. This is the lowest percentage since surveys began enquiring about global warming in 2008.
A total of 70 percent of Americans now believe there is sufficient evidence in support of climate change.
This represents an increase of 7 percent since this spring and 10 percent increase since last fall.
While it may be premature to announce that climate denial is dead in the US, the fact that it is in decline breathes new life into the hopes that the U.S. may return to science based legislative solutions.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: Carole Dupre, courtesy flickr