In November 2018, a federal report involving 13 federal agencies and more than 300 leading climate scientists warned of the potentially catastrophic impact of climate change. President Trump dismissed the findings at the time by simply saying, “I don’t believe it.” This diverging of viewpoints is not a new phenomenon, but as is the case with many issues these days, partisanship tends to dictate how you view an issue. For many Americans, the existence and human-related causes of warming temperatures is a matter of science. Others, like the President, deny its existence and/or argue warming temperatures are caused by natural changes in our environment.
To gain a deeper insight into where the public stands, we decided to ask them. The wording of questions on topics like climate change can often have a heavy influence on the results, and we attempted to keep it as neutral as possible. Our panelists were asked to allocated between warming temperatures being driven by human activities, and natural changes. The exact wording was: “When thinking about warming temperatures on our planet, what percent do you believe is due to human activities and what percent do you believe is due to natural changes?”
In our platform, respondents are not asked to choose between one position or another but instead allocate their views out of 100 percent. The numbers on the graph above represent the Average Allocation for each position. Said in another way the average respondent-allocated 56% of warming is due to human activity, and 43% due to natural causes. Taking this into account, we find Americans, in general, believe human activity is the leading cause of climate change. Still, the margin is not large, showing a bit of insight into why this issue continues to be argued in Congress and in the public square.
Given our approach to these questions, we are not only able to see where our audience is on a specific issue or concept overall, but also how strongly they feel about each position. Diving into these numbers on the question of warming temperature we see bigger differences than what the averages tend to show. Looking at the allocation for human behavior, we find that 46% of adults feel strongly about human activities’ role in climate change compared to just 28% who feel as strongly about natural causes being the biggest driver of higher temperatures. Interestingly, the largest group within the support scale for natural causes’ role are the 35% who have a weak opinion on this side of the climate change equation.
While we find this interesting in and of itself, the more practical application is that not only is there a much larger number of adults feeling strongly that humans are the biggest drivers of climate change (almost a 2:1 ratio), but there is a much larger proportion of Americans holding moderate to weaker opinions on the effects of natural causes (55%) a significantly larger number than the 37% who hold weak opinions on human behavior.
As mentioned at the beginning, there is a clear partisan divide on this issue. In the charts above we see that the vast majority of Democrats (70%) feel strongly that human behavior is the major driver of increased temperatures. Republicans, on the other hand, are on the opposite end of the spectrum with just 15% sharing this strong opinion. It should be mentioned that while about a third of Republicans give human behavior a zero, a majority (51%) believe that it has some effect, even if they don’t believe so strongly. When it comes to natural causes we see a similar pattern with Republicans and Democrats. Just 5% of Democrats feel strongly that temperature rise is due to natural causes, while a majority of Republicans (53%) feel this way strongly. As we saw above, a majority of Democrats (55%) feel that natural cycles have some effect, although they do not feel this way strongly. Also worth mentioning is that 39% of Democrats feel that natural causes have zero to do with temperature increases.
While partisan divides are not exactly shocking these days, we were a little surprised at how clear the pattern was when looking at generational differences. Indeed, the younger the voter, the likelier they are to have a strong opinion on humans’ role in climate change. These are important differences to keep in mind and our expectation is that this pattern will continue and reaction to this issue will vary greatly depending on the age of the person discussing this issue.