Measuring the U.S. Political Gap on Climate Change in the Election Year

A national survey of Americans looks at their views on climate change and the Arctic, and how they line up with their political views. Lawrence C. Hamilton explains the trends and divisions among voters during this presidential election.

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Public views on climate change are divided along party lines, according to a recent survey of Americans. The findings also showed that fewer than 20 percent knew that the U.S. had Arctic territory with thousands of residents.AP/Patrick Semansky

In the U.S., political views correlate with an individual’s views on many aspects of climate change, from the acceptance of science and information sources relied upon to the perceived need for a policy response. According to the results of a survey published last week, stark divisions exist between the supporters of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump when it comes to understanding climate change and the Arctic.

“There is a big political gap,” says Lawrence C. Hamilton, a sociologist at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, who led the survey, in association with researchers from Columbia University in New York. “It’s interesting to see how your political convictions whisper in your ear and tell you how to answer a factual question on climate change,” says Hamilton.

The survey, conducted by telephone interviews with 704 randomly selected U.S. residents in August 2016, asked about their understanding of climate change and the Arctic, and examined whether those perspectives correlated with their political stance.

Despite the tone of this year’s presidential race, Hamilton says that the public acceptance of climate change and the importance of renewable energy has been rising gradually over the years, from the low 50s to more than 60 percent over the past seven years.

“I’m not seeing increasing polarization in the things that I’m tracking,” he says. He says individual events, such as Hurricane Sandy or Pope Francis’ calls for action on climate change, haven’t changed minds, but awareness has been “slowly drifting upwards.”

Hamilton and his team will be back on the phones on November 9, the day after the election, to see if climate change views have shifted in the U.S. This time, he says, the question will be, “Who did you vote for?”

A summary of the report, “Where Is the North Pole?” and some selected findings are found below. Download the full report from the Carsey School of Public Policy.

Are Human Activities Changing the Earth’s Climate?

In more than 40 surveys and 30,000 interviews since 2010, Carsey School researchers have included this basic question about climate change. Almost all scientists would say that climate change is happening now and that it has been caused mainly by human activities.

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Who Do You Trust for Information?

Scientists and science agencies score high, regardless of political views. Scientists who make an effort to explain their work to the publicly accessible media and are involved in communicating that work have had an effect, says Hamilton.

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Summary

The north and south polar regions have been rapidly changing, affecting global weather and sea levels and sparking international concern about shipping and resources. While these global impacts occur, physical changes such as warming and less ice directly affect ecosystems and people living in polar regions. President Barack Obama, visiting the northern Alaska town of Kotzebue in summer 2015, noted the impact of climate change on the U.S. Arctic, where several towns may be abandoned due to rising flood risks in the next few decades, if not sooner.

To explore public knowledge and perceptions about climate change, University of New Hampshire researchers conducted the first Polar, Environment and Science (POLES) survey in August 2016. A random sample of U.S. adults were asked for their views regarding science, climate change, sources of information, current problems and possible solutions. In addition, the survey tested basic geographical knowledge related to polar regions, such as whether the U.S. has a significant population living in the Arctic, and what respondents know about the location of the North Pole.

Results from the survey highlight areas of knowledge, uncertainty and division. Public views on almost everything related to climate change – acceptance of basic science observations, trusted sources of information, the seriousness of current problems, or the need for any policy response – exhibit wide differences depending on political orientation. In this election year, such divisions appear as stark contrasts between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Geographic questions that are not obviously tied to climate beliefs evoke less political division, but often reveal low levels of background knowledge.

Policies intended to reduce risks from climate change broadly aim for either adaptation or mitigation. Adaptation accepts that climate is changing and seeks stopgap measures such as building sea walls or planting alternative crops that might postpone adverse effects, as well as strategic responses for continuing change. Mitigation aims to slow the pace of change itself, often by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) that trap heat in the atmosphere.

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