Almost 90% of Americans don’t know there’s scientific consensus on global warming

Protester at the March for Science in Washington, D.C., April 22, 2017.

A new report shows that the vast majority of Americans have no clue what the scientific consensus on climate change is.

According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, which conduct an annual survey on what Americans think about climate change, only 13 percent of Americans correctly identified that more than 90 percent of all climate scientists have concluded that human-caused global warming is happening. (It’s actually at least 97 percent of climate scientists that agree human-caused global warming is happening.)

The Yale-GMU report, published yesterday, is based on a survey of 1,266 adults from May 18 to June 6 of this year, and the results have an average margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Why is perception of scientific consensus so important? Turns out that it’s actually a “gateway belief” to support for public action on climate change, according to a study from 2015 cited in the report. In other words, the more one perceives there to be a scientific consensus on the reality of human-caused climate change, the more likely they are to believe that it is real and worrisome. And the more one believes that human-caused climate change is real and worrisome, the more likely one is to support public action on the issue.

Now, it seems this particular finding from the report has remained pretty consistent with past surveys, which means the Trump administration hasn’t dramatically impacted the public’s understanding of the consensus.

While the administration refuses to clarify whether the president thinks climate change is real, widely overstates uncertainty about climate change, and is reportedly planning "red team, blue team" exercises to evaluate climate science, it “hasn’t specifically gone after the consensus as a fact,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Communication and one of the study authors, said. But the Trump administration does seem to intend to “perpetuate the myth that there is no scientific consensus,” his co-author, Edward Maibach at George Mason, told me.

And they both suggest that the red-team approach could end up sowing fresh seeds of doubt in the consensus. Whether or not the Trump administration’s dangerous antics will shift public understanding on climate change is still unknown, Leiserowitz says. More likely, he believes, Trump “can reinforce or strengthen the disbelief [in human-caused climate change] of many of his supporters.”

Both Maibach and Leiserowitz point to another finding that offers a little more hope: 58 percent of Americans, the highest percentage since the surveys began in 2008, believe that climate change is mostly human-caused. Though that still means four in 10 Americans don’t.

So how do we continue to build understanding of the scientific consensus on climate change under an administration sowing ignorance and doubt? As Michelle Nijhuis wrote for Vox, it “may be possible to metaphorically ‘inoculate’ people against misinformation about climate change, and by doing so give the facts a boost.” That’s worth a try. We’re also going to have to confront the massive “crisis of authority” and crisis of our scientific institutions under the Trump administration if we want to fix the messy politics of climate change in the US over the long term.

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