Why record numbers of Americans now say humans cause climate change

More Americans than ever believe humans are responsible for climate change, according to a Gallup poll. And scientists say this is no coincidence. 

Andrew Burton/Reuters
A woman looks at a roller coaster sitting in the ocean after Hurricane Sandy, in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, in this file photo taken November 28, 2012. The number of people who could be displaced in U.S. coastal regions due to rising sea levels this century as a result of climate change is much higher than previously thought, with more than 13 million Americans at risk with a 6-foot (1.8 meters) rise, scientists say.

Sixty-five percent of Americans say human activities are responsible for climate change, the highest reading ever according to a Gallup poll published earlier this month. And 64 percent of Americans say they are worried a great deal or a fair amount about climate change, the highest percentage since 2008. 

There's a national shift in American attitudes about and understanding of climate change.  Since 2015, the number of Americans who credit human activities with climate change has increased from 55 to 65 percent, and the number of Americans concerned about climate change has increased from 55 to 64 percent. A smaller increase (from 37 to 41 percent) is seen in the Americans who believe global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime increased, based on 1,019 American adults surveyed by Gallup in 50 states.

So why the uptick? 

Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview that it has a lot to do with media coverage. 

“Most Americans don’t have direct access to information about climate change, so the way they learn about it is through the media,” says Dr. Leiserowitz. And in 2015, Pope Francis and the Paris climate summit “brought enormous attention” to the issue. “Paris helped shift the narrative, it wasn’t an international debate. It was an agreement on what’s happening with serious voluntary commitments by almost every nation.” 

But above all, says Gallup, the great persuader is likely the weather. 

The World Meteorological Organization released their annual State of the Climate report Monday, confirming that 2015 was the "warmest [year] on record by a clear margin." And the heat continues to rise so far in 2016. 

February 2016 was the hottest February on record, 2.43 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the average from 1951 to 1980 (the benchmark typically used), according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

“Not only did February beat all the Februaries that came before, it now ascends the throne for the hottest seasonally adjusted month on the books,” reports The Christian Science Monitor’s Eva Botkin-Kowacki. “January 2016 had claimed that title, but it didn’t keep it for long. February was quick to snatch it away, beating the first month of the year by 0.38 degrees Fahrenheit.”

“Americans are now expressing record- or near-record-high belief that global warming is happening, as well as concern about the issue,” suggests Lydia Saad and Jeffrey Jones, authors of the Gallup poll. “If that’s true, continuation of such weather patterns would likely do more than anything politicians and even climate-change scientists can to further raise public concern.”

Since Gallup began tracking Americans’ climate change perceptions in 1990, there have been three notable years for climate change concern: 2000 when 72 percent of Americans worried about climate change, 2008 with 66 percent and 2016 with 64 percent. 

“A confluence of factors – the economic downturn, the Climategate controversy and some well-publicized pushback against global warming science – may have dampened public concern about global warming from about 2009 to 2015,” explains Gallup. 

But Prof. Leiserowitz at Yale University says Gallup is missing the bigger picture. 

“It didn’t have much to do with economic downturn. People without jobs were no less worried about climate change – there was another factor going on and that’s politics,” says Leiserowitz. “During this time we also saw the rise of the Tea Party and key opinion leaders in the Republican Party and that has an influence. When your leader – someone you trust – says this is all a hoax, it feeds deniers. It’s effective.” 

But as the new 2016 Gallup data suggests, influence on climate change belief also works the other way. Only 10 percent of survey participants say global warming effects will never occur, the lowest rate since 2007. Because regardless of political opposition and media coverage in 2015, Americans across the country are feeling the implications of climate change for themselves. 

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