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US Capitol Building, Washington DC
Credit: Orhan Cam/Shutterstock
30 January 2015 12:30

New US poll shows gap between scientists, the public, and politicians on climate change

Mat Hope


Mat Hope

30.01.2015 | 12:30pm
Public opinionNew US poll shows gap between scientists, the public, and politicians on climate change

The US Congress set up a showdown with the Barack Obama yesterday over the approval of the controversial Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

Most members of Congress argue it’s necessary for the country’s energy security. The president is concerned about the impact that extracting, transporting, and burning the oil could have on climate change.

New polling data shows the vast majority of the US’s scientists and growing numbers of the public share the president’s concern about how human activity may impact climate change. It suggests that the views of politicians are increasingly at odds with the country’s climate scientists.

Causes of climate change

Growing numbers of US adults attribute climate change to human activities, new data from the Pew Research Centre shows. But there’s a big discrepancy between the public, politicians, and scientists’ views on climate change.

Fifty per cent of the 2,0002 adults polled believe climate change is caused by human activities – the highest level since 2008. The data shows opinions continue to be closely related to partisanship and age, with young Democrats still the most likely to believe in human causes.

Public opinion contrasts starkly with scientists’ views. An overwhelming majority of the 3,748 scientists affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 87 per cent, attribute climate change to human causes, the poll finds.

This contrasts with data from the liberal thinktank the Centre for American Progress, released earlier this month, which showed 57 per cent of Congress attributes climate change to something other than human activities.

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 11.04.43.png
Sources: Public and scientists, Pew Research Centre. Congress, the Centre for American Progress. Graph by Carbon Brief.

The gap between opinions reflects, perhaps, a misperception of the level of scientific agreement about the causes of climate change.

Fifty-seven per cent of respondents said they believed scientists generally agreed that humans cause climate change – a long way below the 87 per cent figure Pew’s poll found. The number of people that think scientists agree on humans’ impact on the climate is increasing, however:

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 11.24.34.png
Source:  Pew Research Centre. Graph by Carbon Brief.

The discrepancy wasn’t confined to the causes of climate change. It also appears in the data on whether people consider climate change to be a serious problem.

Ninety-four per cent of scientists polled by the Pew centre said climate change was a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem. Just 65 per cent of the public agreed with them.

Policy choices

The gap is reflected in each groups’ energy policy preferences. Pew’s data shows scientists are much more likely than the public to oppose increased use of high-carbon energy sources.

The public are more likely than scientists to support increasing offshore drilling and fracking. Conversely, scientists are more likely to support ramping up low-carbon nuclear power:

public v scientists energy.jpg
Source: Pew Research Centre. Graph by Carbon Brief.

When viewed in this light, Congress’ attempt to push through high-carbon energy projects, such as the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, perhaps look less outlandish.

But Congress’ actions remain at odds with the views of a large majority of the country’s scientists. Not least, its continued refusal to affirm its belief in humans’ contribution to climate change.


Main image: US Capitol Building, Washington DC.
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