The 6 Americas of Climate Change

June 29, 2011

The Center for Climate Communication at George Mason University has update its “6 Americas of Climate Change” study, a breakdown of where we are in raising awareness on climate issues.

The study affirms that the majority of Americans are concerned about climate, and favor the measures needed to address it, confirms my observation that the people who know least about it are most sure they are “well informed”, notes that the majority still trust scientists in government agencies to tell them the truth, and gives a roadmap for how and who to target in communicating the science of climate change.

The study divides the population into the sectors above, from “Alarmed” to “Disengaged” to “Dismissive”. Here are some key bullet points:

The proportion of the population in each of the Six Americas has remained relatively stable over the past year, with 39 percent of Americans in the two groups most concerned about climate change – the Alarmed and the Concerned – and a quarter of the population in the two groups least concerned about the issue – the Dismissive and Doubtful. The high level of concern found in the fall of 2008, on the eve of the recession and prior to the release of stolen emails (known as climategate), remains an unmatched benchmark for engagement with the issue of climate change.

Uncertainty on the issue remains high: More than a third of Americans agreed that they could easily change their minds about global warming – especially those in the Disengaged (73%) and Cautious (58%) segments. While 70 percent of the Dismissive said they do not need any more information to form a firm opinion on the issue, majorities of all other groups said they need at least a little more information before making up their minds, including 91 percent of the Concerned, 89 percent of the Cautious, and 86 percent of the Disengaged. Close to half of the Disengaged (47%) said they need a lot more information to form a firm opinion.

Of the Six Americas, the Dismissive were the most likely to say they are well-informed about global warming, with 91% saying they were very or fairly well-informed. Among the Alarmed, 85% said they were very or fairly well-informed, followed by two-thirds of the Concerned the Doubtful. The Disengaged were most likely to say they were not well-informed, with only 2% saying they were very well-informed.

Only in the Alarmed and Concerned groups were a majority aware that most scientists think global warming is occurring. Majorities in the other four groups said that either there was a lot of disagreement among scientists or that they didn’t know. Even among the Alarmed and Concerned, however, awareness of the strength of scientific agreement is low: While approximately 97% of publishing climate scientists agree that climate change is occurring and that it is caused primarily by human activities, this high level of scientific agreement is recognized by only 44 percent of the Alarmed, 18 percent of the Concerned, 12 percent of the Cautious, and 5 percent or fewer of the Disengaged, Doubtful and Dismissive.

Because Americans do not clearly distinguish between weather and climate, they may be inclined to infer whether climate change is occurring from recent weather. The results presented here suggest that the groups that are most undecided about global warming – the Cautious and Disengaged – are the most likely to use weather events in this way: Majorities of both groups agreed that last winter’s record snowstorms made them question the reality of global warming, and that last summer’s heat waves strengthened their belief in global warming. Conversely, the groups with stronger opinions – the Alarmed, Concerned, Doubtful and Dismissive – were more likely to say that recent weather strengthened what they already believed: The record heat waves last summer strengthened belief in global warming for 83 percent of the Alarmed and 75 percent of the Concerned, but the record snowstorms last winter made only 32 percent of the Alarmed and 39 percent of the Concerned question the reality of global warming. Conversely, 93 percent of the Dismissive and 82 percent of the Doubtful said that the heat waves did not strengthen their belief in global warming. The snowstorms, however, led 53 percent of the Dismissive and 45 percent of the Doubtful to question the reality of global warming.

Three-quarters of Americans said they trust the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and scientists as sources of information on global warming. While three-quarters or more of the Disengaged, Cautious, Concerned and Alarmed said they trust these two sources, only half of the Doubtful said they trust them. Among the Dismissive, only a quarter trusted NOAA and 30 percent trusted scientists, and yet these were their two most trusted sources of the 10 assessed. Overall, majorities trusted a number of other government agencies: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Park Service, and the Department of Energy (DOE). Trust in President Obama was highly polarized, with 77 percent of the Alarmed saying they trusted him, as compared to 21 percent of the Doubtful and 3 percent of the Dismissive. The mainstream news media and congressional representatives were the least trusted sources, with fewer than 10 percent of any audience segment saying they strongly trusted them.

Two-thirds of Americans said that developing sources of clean energy should be a high or very high priority for the president and Congress, and half said that global warming should be. Both issues were marked by polarization among the six audiences, although the differences were smaller for clean energy: 98 percent of the Alarmed said that clean energy should be a high or very high priority, as compared to 24 percent of the Dismissive. By comparison, 96% of the Alarmed said global warming should be a priority, but none of the Dismissive thought it should be.

Three-quarters of Americans said they would like their communities to build more bike paths and bike lanes, and to increase the availability of public transportation. This support extended across the six audience groups, with 60 percent of the Dismissive saying they supported these policies, as compared to more than 90 percent of the Alarmed. A number of other policies received support from majorities of four of the six segments: Majorities of the Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious and Disengaged supported requiring new homes to be more energy efficient; changing zoning rules to reduce the need for a car and commuting times; and promoting the construction of energy- efficient apartment buildings. The one policy receiving stronger support from the Dismissive than other groups was building a local nuclear power plant. A majority of the Dismissive (57%) supported this, while majorities of all other groups opposed it.


2 Responses to “The 6 Americas of Climate Change”

  1. Jim Jenal Says:

    This is a fascinating study but there is one key question that they did not ask: “What is your primary source of information regarding climate change/global warming?” 10% of the population is absolutely convinced this isn’t happening – I would really like to know (although I could guess) where those people are getting their (mis)information.

    • Yes we do know where the 25% of the population who can’t cram their ideology into reality get their misinformation. The more perplexing question is where the 62% of the unconvinced get their information – probably not from ClimateCrocks.

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