Republicans are much more likely to doubt scientists’ understanding of climate change and to question scientists’ motives.
By Nathan Collins
A scientist studies the effects of climate change on the Daintree Rainforest in Cape Tribulation, Australia. (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Americans are divided on climate change—roughly half of us (mostly Democrats) believe human beings are responsible for global warming. Now, the results of a new Pew Research Center survey suggest there are deep partisan divides among Americans about climate scientists themselves, even as a substantial majority believe those scientists should play a major role in setting climate policy.
Surveys have shown “a political divide in people’s beliefs about climate change for at least a decade,” Pew’s associate director of research Cary Funk writes in an email. “One of the surprises, here, is the strong and consistent political divide across so many judgments related to climate change, including Americans’ views of climate scientists and climate research.”
That result stands out in part because Americans generally seem to trust scientists. “We find majorities of all political groups have at least a fair amount of confidence in scientists to act in the public interest,” Funk writes. “This suggests that political differences are largely concentrated in Americans’ views about climate scientists, per se, rather than scientists, more generally.”
The survey asked 1,534 Americans nationwide for their beliefs about climate change’s causes and consequences, their opinions of climate scientists, and what they thought should be done about climate change. Among the key findings: Barely one-third of Americans believe climate scientists understand “very well” whether climate change is happening, while 40 percent say climate scientists understand that “fairly well.”
“Political differences are largely concentrated in Americans’ views of about climate scientists, per se, rather than scientists, more generally.”
Meanwhile, there’s a strong partisan divide in people’s opinions of climate scientists. Among liberal Democrats, 68 percent think scientists understand “very well” that climate change is real, compared with 18 percent of conservative Republicans, 24 percent of moderate or liberal Republicans, and 31 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats.
The same pattern of partisanship extends to climate change causes and solutions, Funk and her colleagues write in the report, although the overall numbers suggest greater skepticism: Only 28 percent thought scientists understood the causes very well, and 19 percent thought they had a very good understanding of how to combat climate change.
Another surprise, according to Funk, is the importance of personal concern about climate change. “The 36% of Americans who are more personally concerned about the issue of global climate change,” she writes, “whether they are Republican or Democrat, are much more likely to see climate science as settled, to believe that humans are playing a role in causing the Earth to warm, and to put great faith in climate scientists.”
The survey also revealed that Democrats ascribed rather more altruistic motives to climate scientists: More than half of liberal Democrats thought researchers’ conclusions were influenced, most of the time, by the best available evidence. Similar numbers of conservative Republicans thought scientists were motivated by a desire to advance their careers or their political leanings.
Despite that lack of confidence, 67 percent of Americans, including 48 percent of conservative Republicans, believe climate scientists should have a major role in setting policy, as opposed to a minor role or no role at all. That number put climate researchers ahead of the general public, energy industry leaders, and elected officials, the latter of whom only 44 percent of Americans surveyed believed should play a major role in crafting climate policy.