Climate Change in the American Mind

Mar. 12, 2014

When it comes to the contentious issue of climate change, the loudest voices often get the most attention in the American news and opinion media—and the U.S. Congress. Among the most vocal are the naysayers who dismiss climate science and decry government action to combat global warming. Yet this outspoken minority comprises only about 15 percent of the American population.

"It’s a really loud 15 percent" that is "well represented in the halls of Congress," said Yale University researcher Anthony Leiserowitz, who spoke at a a recent Harvard Kennedy School seminar on public opinion and climate change. But, he noted, at the other end of the spectrum is a similar number of Americans—16 percent—who say they are "alarmed" by human-caused climate change and strongly supportive of policies to reduce the hazardous greenhouse gas emissions that threaten the Earth and its inhabitants.

The biggest challenge is reaching the majority of people who fall in between, said Leiserowitz, one of the leading experts on American and international public opinion on global warming. His most recent research, based on November 2013 polling, suggests that about one-fourth of Americans are “concerned” about climate change but don’t give it high priority, and another quarter are “the cautious” who are still  “on the fence.” About 12 percent are on the "doubtful" end of the spectrum and don’t think it’s happening, while a tiny number—about 5 percent—are so "disengaged" that they don’t know anything about climate change and really don’t care.

So what inspires climate change concern and action? "Most of us are really affected by the people in our own lives. It’s our kids. It’s our friends," said Leiserowitz, who directs the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. "We need to talk about it."

Since its founding in 2005, the Yale Project has conducted more than a dozen national climate change public opinion studies on Americans’ knowledge, risk perceptions, and behavior. Its surveys on “Climate Change and the American Mind” are a joint effort with the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

Leiserowitz shared some of the major findings at a March 6 seminar sponsored by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs' Environment and Natural Resources Program. ENRP director Henry Lee welcomed Leiserowitz, noting that his lecture would delve into the "psychological, the cultural, the political and the geographic factors that drive environmental perceptions." This seminar was the second in a 2014 series on "Energy, Environment, and the Media," which has focused on journalism, public opinion, and climate change.

In the introduction to his talk, Leiserowitz outlined what he identified as the "big five" core beliefs on climate change — it's real; it's us; it's bad; scientists agree it’s happening; and there's hope. “It would be great if every American could have the equivalent of Climate Change 101," he said. But in the meantime, increasing public understanding of those five principles would be the first step toward collective action by putting everyone on the same footing.

The Yale project has sought ways to engage the public and serve as an educational resource. It also supports an online website for independent analysis of media coverage—the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.

In a poll of the HKS audience, most attendees raised their hand when Leiserowitz asked if the first image they associated with global warming was melting ice. In a 2005 survey, Leiserowitz found similar results, which he attributed to the dramatic Arctic images used by the media, particularly television. However, he said that focus on the Arctic impact kept climate change at a distance for many people. He emphasized the need to educate the public on the other real effects, including the potential human health hazards. "It’s not just polar bears. It really is about us," Leiserowitz added.

Despite the accumulation of scientific knowledge and policy strategies on climate change, the American public's understanding and concern has wavered over the years. Surveys by the Yale Project and others identified a peak in 2007, followed by a 14 percent drop between 2008 and 2010. Leiserowitz's team hypothesized reasons for the decline, including a focus on the economy and unemployment, less media coverage, unusually cold weather, and efforts by an organized climate denial campaign {Ed. Note: See February 13, 2014 seminar on "Scientists, Skeptics and the Media."}

But Leiserowitz returned to one of his "big fives"  — there's hope  — when he shared data showing a gradual rebound in public interest and concern. A  2013 study found that 56 percent of Americans believed that "global warming is affecting weather in the United States," which he said was influenced by the extreme temperatures and weather events in recent years. "We turn our heads from American Idol, or our sports team, or what our kids are doing at school … and people are asking the question 'what does this have to do with climate change? Is it happening here and now?'" Leiserowitz said.

The Yale Project asked Americans how willing they would be to join a campaign to convince elected officials to take action to reduce global warming and found that 3 in 10, or 29 percent, of those surveyed showed a willingness to do so. Leiserowitz estimated that at least 20 million Americans—among the "alarmed" and "concerned"—are already poised to campaign for climate change action.

In a question-and-answer session following the lecture, an audience member asked Leiserowitz what "secret ingredient" was needed to jumpstart this movement. Leiserowitz made note of the strides of, a group that has done much to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, but also emphasized the need to engage a much larger community on the issue of climate change.

"We need to find them, and give them a community to join," Leiserowitz said. "In the civil rights movement, there was no one leader. That was the work of literally thousands of leaders across the country."

ENRP assistant director Amanda Sardonis and senior fellow Cristine Russell organized the ENRP seminar, held in conjunction with Russell’s HKS class on "The Media, Energy and Environment."

Kerry Flynn, a senior at Harvard College and former Crimson writer, plans to pursue a career in journalism following graduation. She will work at Forbes in New York City this summer.

For more information on this publication: Please contact Environment and Natural Resources
For Academic Citation: Kerry Flynn. "Climate Change in the American Mind." News, Harvard University, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, March 12, 2014.