Global Warming: Inside the American Psyche

by Bill Chameides | July 18th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 3 comments

The strange and not-so-strange ways Americans split on global warming.

Americans don’t agree on global warming — no surprise there. But how do they disagree? And why?

To answer those questions, the Yale Project of Climate Change Communication has been reporting on attitudes about global warming since 2007. In 2008 researchers began conducting a large national survey that identified six groups of Americans who respond to the issue in distinct ways “along a spectrum of concern and issue engagement” as follows:

Alarmed those “who are fully convinced of the reality and seriousness of climate change and are already taking individual, consumer, and political action to address it.”

Concerned those “who are convinced that global warming is happening and a serious problem, but have not yet engaged the issue personally.”

Cautious – those “who believe global warming is a problem, they don’t view it as a personal threat and don’t feel a sense of urgency to deal with it.

Disengaged – those “who haven’t thought much about the issue, don’t know much about it, and are the most likely to say that they could easily change their minds about global warming.

Doubtful – “evenly split among those who think global warming is happening, those who think it isn’t, and those who don’t know.” Many who fall into this category believe that if the climate is changing, it is caused by natural processes in the environment, believe global warming won’t harm people for many decades to come, if at all, and say that America is already doing enough to respond to the threat.

Dismissive those “who believe that warming is not happening, is not a threat … and strongly believe it is not a problem that warrants a national response.”

Now referred to as the Six Americas poll, the project’s first four installments were completed in October 2008, January 2010, June 2010 and July 2010. The results of the latest poll from May 2011 are now available.

The percentages of respondents falling into each of the groups have bounced up and down over time. The largest changes between polls occurred between October 2008 and January 2010 (perhaps as fallout from Climategate and/or growing concerns about the economic ramifications of climate legislation in light of the recession) with the dismissive group jumping from 7 to 16 percent, the alarmed group falling from 18 to 10 percent and the cautious group increasing from 19 to 27 percent. Since January 2010, the numbers have trended toward the October 2008 values — but still have a ways to go in some of the categories.

Overall, the percentages for the six groups came in like this in the latest poll:

Alarmed Concerned Cautious Disengaged Doubtful Dismissive
 12%  27%  25%  10%  15%  10%

OK, I guess it’s a bit of a victory for those favoring policies addressing global warming, with more people claiming to be alarmed or concerned (39 percent) than those claiming to be doubtful and dismissive (25 percent). But add the 10 percent disengaged to the dismissive and you get 35 percent happy with the status quo. These numbers are interesting and will no doubt provide fodder for both sides of the debate on where the oh-so-frequently intoned “American people” fall on the question.

But there’s a lot more fascinating information in the May 2011 poll. Here are a few choice ones:

Are You Well Informed About Global Warming?

The Perception About Global Warming

The percentages of each group that said they are very well informed about global warming:

Alarmed Concerned Cautious Disengaged Doubtful Dismissive
 25%  3%   3%  2%  9%  38%

The percentages of each group that said the statement that “most scientists think global warming is happening” come closest to their own view.

Alarmed Concerned Cautious Disengaged Doubtful Dismissive
 72%  63%  38%  13% 14% 4%

The Reality

Actual percentage of publishing climate scientists who agree that global warming is occurring and human activity is a significant factor, according to Peter Doran and Maggie Kendall Zimmerman of the University of Illinois at Chicago: 97%

Do You Need to Learn More?

The percentages of each group that said they do not need any more information:

Alarmed Concerned Cautious Disengaged Doubtful Dismissive
28% 9% 11% 14% 39% 70%




Survey conducted April 23-May 21, 2011 with 981 adults. The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.

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  1. John Mashey
    Aug 13, 2011

    I would caution on the 97% number also, but just in general, given the uncertainty bars. Among actual publishing climate scientists, I’d guess the number is higher, because it is hard to think of more than a handful who would disagree. If someone does *not* think it is higher, I’d suggest attending the next AGU Fall Meeting (in San Francisco, as usual), and at the end of every climate session, stand up and ask the speakers what they think. You will of course know the names of the speakers and can check their publications, not counting things like OpEds, E&E, etc, etc. You might also ask the audience to raise hands, although you wouldn’t know who they were. Sicne tehr would be so few people who disagreed with the consensus, you could go look at their name badges and talk to them. is the website For those who disagree, you would want to look up publications, as above, but the harder part is seeing someone with publications and assessing the quality. Some people have publications … that were strongly refuted by new evidence or basic math/statistics errors … but those still show up in someone’s Vita.

  2. Jim
    Jul 19, 2011

    Even though I don’t think it would change things much, the figure of 97% of climate scientists believe that global warming is happening and is caused by humans, comes from a study that is not perfect. This was in a blog post from Andy Revkin from the NY Times. One issue with the study is that they posted the list of scientists from which they surveyed their papers, which was a violation of privacy. The other issue is that they forced all the scientists into two camps, either agree or disagree. In reality some on the border could fall into a third camp of “Not Sure”. I think the vast majority would still come out as supporting AGW even if you added another category, but I wanted to point out that there are flaws in the study, so you might want to be cautious when using the 97% figure.

  3. mark isenberg
    Jul 19, 2011

    Hello Dean Bill, I appreciate your essay on global warming ignorance. I am pleased to learn however that one of your professors Wenshong Li has done the hard work which most tv weather folks on our regional news stations refuse to do. she has tracked a Bermuda high pressure zone that may directly affect North Carolina drought or rain pattern predictability. I hope she will get more publicity for this research and you could start with Environmental reporter Bruce Henderson at the Charlotte Observer. I am proud of what you are doing with Nicholas School students and project funding to make a real difference in our region,on our planet. Thank You. mark in Charlotte

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