Sen. James Inhofe, the nation's top climate denier. Image: Flickr
Over the last two years, over 9,000 scientists have published research about climate change. Of that lot, only a single one concluded that climate change was not manmade. In other words, a veritable 99.99 percent of climate scientists have confirmed that global warming is real, is caused by human activity, and is happening right now. At the tail end of that same period, meanwhile, more everyday Americans than ever were deciding precisely the opposite: As of November 2013, 23 percent of Americans said they didn't believe in climate change.
One in four Americans currently does not believe in climate change. That's the latest finding from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications, which monitors trends in how the American public engages with global warming. Its most recent research shows that 7 percent more Americans say they do not believe in climate change than had in the spring. In April, only 16 percent of the nation disavowed the scientifically ironclad theory that carbon dioxide emissions are causing global temperatures to rise. That's a huge spike in disbelief; it represents some 20 million Americans changing their minds despite no swing in the scientific consensus.
It is, in fact, the highest percentage of climate disbelievers the project has ever turned up. Paired with Gallup polls, which reach back further than Yale's, we can extrapolate that climate denial is at what appears to be an all-time high, or at least as high as it's been since it first entered mainstream conversation in the mid '00s.
The level of disbelief has climbed even higher than the previous height of global warming doubt, which occurred in 2010, in the midst of so-called ClimateGate, intense conservative opposition to climate change policy proposals, and an extra-snowy winter. While a clear majority of Americans still believe climate change is occurring, a larger-than-ever number believes that it is not.
So what gives? The poll was even conducted before winter hit its stride, before cold weather invariably prompted conservatives to make noise about the falsity of global warming, and before the bone-cold polar vortex, which was freezing enough to strike the word 'warming' from one's vocabulary altogether. In November, when Yale's study was completed, the most discussed weather event was Typhoon Haiyan, which some scientists actually said may have been made more powerful by global warming. And there were no major climate-related scandals or political campaigns to speak of over the year—so why did so many Americans decide to buck science last year?
The short answer is the media. That's Yale's Anthony Leiserowitz's best guess anyway. I contacted the survey's lead author to try to get an idea why, during an otherwise relatively quiet year on the climate front, he saw such an about face. Leiserowitz has been monitoring trends in how we believe in climate change for years now, and regularly updates what he calls the "Six Americas"—the six different ways that Americans tend to frame their engagement with climate change.
"Overall, the big picture is pretty stable," he told me. The number of people who said they believe in climate change actually stayed roughly the same since last April. It's just that a large number of those who previously said they were undecided suddenly checked the denial column.
A key tenet of Leiserowitz's research is that people "believe" in global warming very differently—some understand the problem well, and are continually "alarmed" by it. Others are so convinced that it's a hoax that they're perpetually "dismissive" of the theory, and next to nothing will ever change their minds about it. In between is the vast gulf made up of the "concerned," the "doubtful," the "cautious," and the "disengaged."
"The alarmed and the dismissive are already deeply committed to their views," he said.
People who are disengaged or doubtful are more likely to change their minds than most everyone else—they're less informed, less educated about the issue. And that's where the media comes in.
"The causes [of climate change] are mostly invisible to most of us, and the impacts are invisible to most of us," he said. "The only reason the public is aware of this problem is the media. When the media doesn't report it, it's literally out of sight and out of mind."
So, the media has an unusually large role in sculpting public opinion when it comes to climate change. Very, very few people read the peer-reviewed literature, very few people follow the science and policy debates, and very few people talk directly to climatologists. Weather tends to influence people's views some—Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the crazy extreme weather of 2011 ticked belief up, so-called Snowpocalpyse in 2010 ticked it down—but again, that wasn't a factor in 2013.
"This survey was conducted in November, primarily, and the key thing going on wasn't weather—there wasn't anything particularly unusual going on there," Leiserowitz said. "The one thing that was going on was the IPCC report came out, and it generated a fair amount of media coverage, and a fair amount of that coverage focused on this 'pause.' This idea that global warming has stopped."
You may remember the period he's talking about, when climatologists discovered something of a lull in the otherwise upwards trajectory of global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is an international body that releases an as-comprehensive-as-possible synthesis of all the latest climate science every few years—and a finding that seemed to purport as much happened to be among the latest developments in the field.
It turned out that oceans were absorbing more heat than previously thought, and the notion that worldwide warming has in anyway slowed isn't true. But the conservative press is ideologically opposed to the very notion of global warming, considering it a liberal policy generator, if not an outright hoax, and pounced on the perceived counterpoint to climate science. The mainstream media then dutifully repeated its phrases and allegations, and we got entire news cycles dedicated to a nonexistent "pause" in planetary warming.
"There's a lot to be criticized in how the media covered this trend, but nonetheless this became a meme," Leiserowitz said, and it "even tended to swamp out all the thousands of pages of data that was in this report."
And, if Leiserowitz's team is right, it caused some 20 million people to say they no longer believed in climate change. Even though it wasn't nearly one of the biggest stories of 2013, or even of November, the 'pause' meme was enough to change perhaps millions of minds.
However, the other thing Leiserowitz's research shows is that this doubt is extremely tenuous, and likely short-lived. Those "doubtful" and "disengaged" folks, and especially the "cautious" are likely to reevaluate their opinions next time a major story or weather event comes slamming through the door—their denial is likely to be short-lived, even though it's just spiked to record levels.
"Will it maintain? I suspect not," he said. "All those people who saw those stories, they're not strongly committed to that idea."
Still, why is this the highest ever level of denial recorded? It's hard to say. The media didn't talk much about climate change at all this year, except fot the 'pause' narrative, and perhaps it just floated to the top: The only thing many people heard about climate last year was that it was stalled out. Meanwhile, the still-growing number people who are resolutely convinced global warming is a liberal hoax invented by Al Gore aren't changing their minds—on the contrary, they're surer that ever they're right. Their cohort is forming the expanding denialist baseline; any temporary swell of mind-changers adds to that.
"It's the groups in the middle that don't pay much attention that don't have strong views and for weather that are more likely to be influenced," he says.
This emphasizes the fact that there are still tens of millions of people whose understanding of climate change is so tenuous that a single news cycle may be able to sway their beliefs—even in potentially record numbers. The New York Times climate writer Andrew Revkin likens this elasticity in belief to "water sloshing in a very shallow pan." It's common to see belief trends spike this way and that, because so relatively few people have a solid conceptual grip on the global warming science. That's how a single finding out of a thousand-plus page report was picked up by conservatives, then the media, and how one limp story ended up turning millions off to climate change—for the time being.
"There is a bump in the amount of newspaper coverage—not huge, but a bump," Leiserowitz said. "Was it enough? That's our working hypothesis."