Blue Iceberg

The Nuance of Climate Change

When we got hit with not one, but two snowstorms in North Texas this year, I couldn’t resist the irony – so much for global warming, huh? If the blustery winds and record snowfalls felt nationwide this year made you doubt the idea of global warming for a moment, you’re not alone.

Results from a series of surveys recently released by the Carsey Institute found that people who described themselves as having “low confidence” in their understanding of the science behind climate change are likely to change their opinion about the meteorological phenomenon based on the weather.

But that’s not all the survey, which included nearly 9,500 respondents in seven U.S. regions, uncovered. Its results showed that, though most Americans now believe climate change is occurring, they are split on its causation: Is climate change human-caused, the result of a buildup of greenhouse gasses, or is it part of a larger, natural trend that is going to happen regardless of human activity?

This split in opinion was biggest in New England, where 56 percent of respondents fingered human activity and 30 percent believed it to be a natural trend. Interestingly, those 56 percent also comprise the largest portion of respondents in any region who blame human activity.

The part of the survey that’s making headlines, though, is that the Carsey Institute found a strong correlation between political party and belief about climate change: Republicans tend think it’s all natural, but Democrats place the blame squarely on humans.

We probably don’t need a survey like this to tell us that Democrats believe we need to take action on climate change and Republicans typically don’t, though what they show about depth to which this divide extends is interesting.

More than that, though, I hope this study doesn’t get boiled down too much in its dissemination to a wider audience – it shows a number fascinating, more-nuanced, results that we honestly couldn’t have guessed at. Nowhere in the survey analysis does its author, Lawrence C. Hamilton, mention the notion of a deeply-divided New England.

Another fascinating survey find that gets left out is that – surprise! – all Alaskans don’t think the same way. The survey took a look at two regions in our nation’s biggest state: rural Alaska (Ketchikan Gateway Borough and Prince of Wales census area) and more-urban Alaska (Haines, Juneau, Sitka, Wrangell and Yakutat boroughs, and the Hoonah-Angoon and Petersburg census areas). It turns out that more-urban Alaskans are more likely to believe climate change is caused by humans (55 percent) than are rural Alaskans (42 percent).

If I were a social scientist, these are the things I’d want to explore. Though the political connection is easier to talk about and may get more pageviews, it’s a worn, tired subject.

Have a look at the survey results. What interests you? What topic do you think is missing from the mainstream climate change discussion?

Posted by Laura Williams on Apr 20, 2011