Study shows more Republicans are unsure about climate change this year

Wednesday, August 10, 2016 - 9:53am

According to a spring 2016 report released earlier this month by the National Survey on Energy and Environment, fewer Americans doubt the occurrence of global warming. However, a recent collaborative study conducted by professors at the University of Michigan's Ford School of Public Policy and the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion concluded that the number of unsure Republicans is at its highest since the inception of NSEE in 2008.

Climate change, which includes global warming, is a change in weather distributions over a long period of time. Global warming specifically refers to the rise in Earth’s temperature caused by human activities that produce greenhouse gases, and is a topic of energy policy discussion in the upcoming election.

The research study surveyed 768 random adult residents across the nation. The participants were asked a number of questions over the phone about their beliefs concerning climate change, and their responses were analyzed for a variety of factors including age, race, education and income.

The study found that the number of Americans who believe there is no solid evidence for global warming was at an all-time low of 15 percent compared to last year’s 24 percent, and the number of people unsure about the case of global warming's existence rose to 19 percent from 13 percent — a shift from denying its existence to begin with.

Sarah Mills, an author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at the Ford Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy, said the high temperatures last year most definitely affected the conclusions of the survey.

“This past winter was one of the warmest winters on record,” Mills said. “We have seen record heat at the beginning of 2016. There doesn’t seem to be much else in the climate world that would account for this growing category of people being unsure about climate.”

Mills said political party affiliation had a large effect on th public's belief in global warming. Among Republicans, 26 percent were unsure about global warming's existence.

The researchers speculate the rise in Republicans unsure about global warming — instead of completely denying its reality — could be accredited to the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, who denies global warming. While some Republicans may agree that global warming is real and a problem to be reconciled with, they do not want to oppose their party's nominee. In March, Trump told the Washington Post that he is not a believer in man-made climate change, adding that “biggest form of climate change we should worry about is nuclear weapons.”

Mills continued to explain that the politics of the Republican Party and Trump’s stance on global warming is likely to be responsible for this shift in Republican opinion to be unsure of global warming's existence, instead of completely believing in it.

“The only thing that I can think of within the political sphere that would point to a growth in this number of Republicans who are unsure is the candidacy of Trump.”

While there is a greater number of Republicans who reported being unsure about global warming, there is little evidence of Republicans transitioning from believer to disbeliever status. One of the NSEE authors, Christopher Borick, who is the director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, echoed Mills.

“For Americans who support Trump, there may be some uneasiness in taking a stance that is in direct conflict with their preferred candidate’s position on the matter,” Borick said. “Thus, if they tend to believe that there is some good evidence of global warming but this view conflicts with Trump, they may tend to go to a more neutral position rather than totally reject the existence of global warming.”

Another key finding of the report was that Americans’ opinions on global warming are more polarized on both sides — meaning that both those who believe in climate change and those who do not are more confident in their opinions. Borick said those who strongly believe in global warming base their beliefs on scientific evidence and the observation of current weather patterns.

“It's becoming harder for individuals to claim that there is not solid evidence that warming is happening,” Borick said. “I think the record warmth last winter helped enhance confidence among those that think global warming is occurring.” On the other hand, people confident in their denial of global warming tend to do so because of personal beliefs, region in the United States or even lack of understanding.

“Our question doesn’t mention anything about human-caused climate change,” Mills said. “(The non-believers) are projecting into it. They are convinced that even if the climate is changing, it is not caused by humans; it is just natural patterns.”

Both Borick and Mills agreed that the public’s opinion on global warming can have a huge effect on the energy and environmental policy of the United States. Mills said that if more people believe in global warming, more efforts can be made to slow it down.

“Belief in climate (change) can certainly shift what actions governments might be able to take to address it,” Mills said. “We have seen that the Democratic and Republican platforms have very different approaches to addressing the problem or not.”