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8 maps that reveal Americans' incoherent opinions on climate change

"Totally!"
"Totally!"
(Shutterstock)

Opinion surveys on climate change are often reported as national averages, but national opinion is not the most important thing to most politicians. They respond to regional and local opinion, the opinions of their constituents. With that in mind, a 2015 study attempted to map public opinion on climate change and climate policy in geographic detail, down to the level of counties and congressional districts.

Researchers took a look at a large database of information assembled by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, which has done regular surveys on American climate opinion since 2007. They attempted to "downscale" the data to the local level through, ahem, "multilevel regression and poststratification." They then tested the results against independent polls in four states and two cities, to make sure the projections held up.

With those geographically detailed estimates in hand, the researchers made a fascinating interactive tool that shows opinion on various climate questions by national average, state, congressional district, or county. For the maps below, I show county-level data, which is the most granular.

Let's have a look at what Americans think about climate change and climate policy.

1) Most Americans believe the climate is changing

(Yale Project on Climate Change Communication)

Unsurprisingly, belief that the climate is changing is concentrated on the West Coast and the Northeast, along with a few other urban areas. But modest majorities in almost every county believe the atmosphere is warming. Good news, right? Except ...

2) Not even half of Americans believe humans are responsible

(Yale Project on Climate Change Communication)

This is the more relevant question when it comes to policy. If human carbon dioxide emissions are not responsible for global warming, then there's no reason to reduce human carbon dioxide emissions. Though scientists are 95 percent certain humans are the dominant influence on recent climate change, majorities believe that only in a few coastal and urban areas.

3) Even fewer Americans believe there's a scientific consensus on climate change

(Yale Project on Climate Change Communication)

Here's a puzzler: more people believe climate change is happening than believe that scientists believe climate change is happening. Why, Americans? For whatever reason, it appears the long effort to push the consensus message has not been very successful. (Worth noting: the consensus message is true.)

4) Fewer than half of Americans believe climate change is hurting the US now

(Yale Project on Climate Change Communication)

For years, environmentalists have worked to connect extreme weather events to climate change. It appears that message has not swayed most of the country (perhaps because the media refuses to help). However...

5) Most Americans believe climate change will harm future generations

(Yale Project on Climate Change Communication)

Most Americans view climate change as a real but distant problem, something that will harm their descendants. That is not a recipe for political urgency.

Nonetheless, opinions on climate policy are interesting. For example:

6) Everybody loves renewable energy

everyone loves clean energy

(Yale Project on Climate Communications)

This is the strongest public consensus of all. Americans love renewable energy. They want to research it, subsidize it, support it, mandate it, whatever it takes, even in Kansas. Across demographic and partisan lines, they love it.

7) Everybody loves limiting carbon emissions

(Yale Project on Climate Communications)

Here's another puzzler for you: more people support regulating CO2 as a pollutant than believe humans are causing climate change. Who are the people who support regulating it but don't believe it causes climate change? And why? It's inert and harmless, except for the climate thing.

The answer, I'm guessing, is that people don't understand climate change very well. (This is the answer to all the puzzlers, basically.) When people hear "pollutant," they want less of it. Nonetheless, it does represent fertile terrain for climate policy, unlike ...

8) Support for a carbon tax remains low, even when the revenue is refunded

(Yale Project on Climate Communications)

Generally, the public's policy preferences are the opposite of economists'. The public likes directly subsidizing clean energy and directly limiting pollutants, policies that hide costs from consumers. It doesn't like gas taxes or carbon taxes, policies that make costs transparent.

Also: note that despite the fervent hopes and predictions of "tax and dividend" supporters, the promise to refund the tax revenue back to households doesn't do much increase support for a tax. People just don't believe it will happen.

TL;DR

Americans don't understand climate change very well, but they see it as a long-term threat and support policies to address it — just not the policies wonks want them to support.