Republicans Can Understand Science and Still Deny Climate Change

Climate skeptics aren’t generally more science illiterate than everyone else, according to a new poll.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who does not believe humans are a main cause of climate change, laughs in the snow in New Hampshire. (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)

The most hopeful news in Tuesday’s big Pew report on climate change and partisanship isn’t particularly uplifting, honestly. The research agency found that 70 percent of Americans believe that climate scientists should have a “major role” in the country’s climate and energy policy. This is roughly like 70 percent of Americans saying they believe seismologists should have a say in the nation’s earthquake policy.

And after that vote of support, confidence in the field drops off. Less than a third of Americans think climate scientists understand the causes of climate change very well. Less than a fifth think they understand the best ways to address it. But most Americans, across both parties, do credit climate scientists with at least a fair amount of confidence to act in the public interest.

These were all findings of the Pew Research Center’s 1,100-person poll of Americans on their feelings not just about climate change but on the whole bundle of climate and energy issues. The poll’s headline number is that 48 percent of Americans correctly understand the Earth to be warming due to human activity. This number has recovered to 2006 levels, when it stood at 50 percent. It fell below 40 percent following the election of Barack Obama.

The report also confirms that Republicans and Democrats—especially on the parties’ respective right and left wings—hold differing views on climate change. But it finds that, especially on the left, these views are modestly moderated by someone’s understanding of general science. In other words, a Democrat with a high amount of science knowledge (including on health and biological concepts) is more likely to correctly state that humans are causing climate change than a Democrat with low science knowledge. Whereas being highly educated or having a high amount of science knowledge doesn’t make Republicans any more likely to say the same.

Generally, Democrats and Republicans performed about the same on the study’s tests of scientific literacy that did not ask about the climate. “Thus, it could be the case that people’s political orientations are an anchoring point for applying their knowledge—rather than the other way around,” says the report.

“Pew is more than just a public polling firm. They generate knowledge that is relevant to scholarly opinion,” said Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School who researches how group identification shapes public understanding of risk. He praised the study’s comprehensive evaluation of its respondents’ scientific literacy, something he said is rare for polls on climate issues.

“It is very striking how sharp the polarization is on climate change issues and even on some energy issues, like fracking and nuclear, but then not on things like solar,” Kahan told me. “That can mean that people don’t really have the same level of interest in solar energy as they do on the issues that are polarizing them.”

The Pew study found that more than 80 percent of Americans support expanding wind and solar energy. Somewhat counterintuitively, Kahan said that this broad support may mean politicians can’t build campaigns around them: Because wind and solar are so popular, support for them is unlikely to shape people’s decisions about whom to vote for.

“That may just mean that [the public] is not intensely interested in it,” he said. “People tend to fixate on issues that are really divisive.” Many people support campaign-finance reform, for instance, but political-science research indicates few people make voting decisions based on it.

That said, these healthy majorities haven’t translated into party platforms yet—at least on a national level. Hillary Clinton’s energy plan is far more amenable to renewable energy (and also far more specific) than Donald Trump’s. But some state-level Republican leaders have been praising renewable energy lately, and all 10 of the congressional districts supplying the most wind power are GOP-controlled.

Here are a few more interesting factlets from the Pew study:

  • A majority of Americans, some 55 percent, believe that future technology will “solve most climate problems.” The way this question was asked, it could encompass not only relatively minor innovations like heat-resistant GMOs but also planet-scale atmospheric engineering, like a still-theoretical “negative emission technology” that could pull carbon out of the air. But climate scientists who have researched geo-engineering tend to think that our best bet won’t be high-tech at all—instead, we’d suck the most carbon out of the air by 2050 just by planting more trees.
  • About 60 percent of those polled predict that climate change will force Americans to make major changes to their “ways of life” in the next 50 years.
  • Slim majorities oppose expanding fracking, offshore drilling, nuclear power, and coal mining. The energy source with the most opposition is coal mining, which 57 percent of Americans do not want to see expanded.
  • According to the survey, the two most trusted institutions in the country are medical scientists and the military—about four in five Americans have at least a fair amount of confidence that both serve the public interest. (This is borne out by other polls which find nurses, pharmacists, and doctors to be the most trusted professions in the United States.) This suggests a good opening for climate advocates, as both leading American medical research institutes and the armed services have expressed high confidence in climate science and alarm at its findings. The naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, is trying to retrofit for rising sea-levels right now—even as House Republicans try to block funding for it.