Can Americans find common ground on climate change?

Americans’ views on climate change diverge sharply depending on their political affiliations, says a new Pew Research poll. But two areas of consensus are emerging.

John Locher/AP/File
An array of mirrors at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating site in Primm, Nev. Over 80 percent of Americans surveyed in a new Pew poll support expanding solar energy generation.

Climate change is still very much a political issue, finds a new poll by the Pew Research Center. But the seeds of consensus are present, too – and they may get to the heart of what Americans value.

The poll found that people’s political orientations have a substantial influence on their perceptions of climate issues. Liberal Democrats express the most trust in climate scientists and are most likely to say that human or political action can prevent climate catastrophe. Conservative Republicans tend to be far more skeptical toward climate scientists, and tend to say that individual acts can make only a limited difference.

At the same time, there is emerging bipartisan US agreement on two key areas: the role of scientists in policy-making and support for renewable energy sources. These areas of consensus may reflect individuals’ values and ideals – and a change in the way that climate science “speaks” to those values.

“The most important thing I’ve learned ... is that facts are not enough,” Katharine Hayhoe, associate professor of political science at Texas Tech University and the co-author of "A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions," tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “We need to connect to people’s hearts,” she says.

Such a personal connection often comes through faith, which is “where many of our values come from,” Dr. Hayhoe explains. And connecting with the science in a more personal way may help increase trust in the science. 

In fact, the Pew survey found that the more people cared about climate issues, the more likely they were to believe that science presented an accurate picture of the issues.  In the “climate-engaged” group, 67 percent said they trusted climate scientists to provide full and accurate information “a lot,” compared with 33 percent of those who cared some about the issues and 9 percent who had little interest in climate change.

Linked to this trust in science, more than 75 percent of Democrats and most Republicans told Pew that scientists should play a “major” role in formulating policy. That may be a shift from previous skepticism – and it’s a move that many scientists would welcome.

“Any time that you can formulate a policy based on data points and facts and not on unquantifiable emotions or opinions, I think that helps to formulate a solid policy,” Benjamin Corb, public affairs director for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, tells the Monitor in a phone interview. But care must be taken to focus on the facts, he says: “Scientists are people ... it doesn’t matter if it’s a non-scientist or a scientist, if you’re letting your opinions overrule the evidence that’s in front of you, that would be problematic.”

For Hayhoe, policy cannot be based purely on scientific facts. Science does not make value judgments, and policy relies on values to “provide the framework to interpret the data,” she explains. Ultimately, the policy you choose to implement reflects where you want to go: as a community, a state or a nation. “It’s a human question,” she says.

A future-looking value judgment may be informing the emerging consensus around support for renewable energy sources. Some 89 percent of Pew respondents were in favor of more solar farms, while wind turbine farms were viewed favorably by 83 percent. Among traditional energy sources, the highest support went to “More offshore drilling,” at 45 percent.

The poll found that support for renewable energy sources was attributable to three broad sets of motivations: financial, health-related, and environmental. This broad base of motivations, rather than a narrow appeal to personal guilt, may help to increase engagement across the political spectrum. A 2015 study across 24 countries found that these so-called “co-benefits” to environmental action motivated people regardless of whether they believed in man-made climate change.

“It’s much easier to address the things that many people already care about and link these things to environmental action, like creating jobs and the state of their local community, rather than trying to change their stance on particular environmental issues,” explained co-author Gró Einarsdóttir, a PhD student from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, to Science Nordic.

Increasing private money in clean energy technologies may be a particular spur to this consensus. The investments of individuals such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates suggest that the industry is not only economically viable, but may have huge potential for growth. That’s a change from the perception of renewable energy as a sink for government funds, which was fueled by events like the Solyndra collapse.

Some policymakers are already finding areas of consensus. Senators Jim Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma and Barbara Boxer (D) of California have recently worked together on three environment-related bills: a transportation bill, a water projects bill, and the first update in 40 years to toxic chemicals regulation.

"People wonder how can we possibly bridge the divide," [Boxer] mused as the Senate debated the water bill. "And it is a fact that on certain issues we can't. There is a lesson there. ... We have never, ever taken those differences and made them personal. We respect each other and we don't waste a lot of time arguing."

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