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Survey | Believers, Sympathizers, and Skeptics: Why Americans are Conflicted about Climate Change, Environmental Policy, and Science

[11.21.2014]

Findings from the PRRI/AAR Religion, Values, and Climate Change Survey

Read the full report here. Read the news release here. Read the topline questionnaire, including the survey methodology, here.

The Importance of and Concerns about Climate Change

 

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Americans rank climate change last on a list of important issues. Only five percent of Americans say climate change is the most important issue facing the U.S. today. The issue of climate change ranks behind the lack of jobs (22%), the increasing gap between rich and poor (18%), health care (17%), the budget deficit (13%), immigration reform (10%), and the rising cost of education (9%).

When asked which environmental problem is most important for the current administration to tackle, nearly 3-in-10 (29%) Americans point to air, water, and soil pollution. One-quarter (25%) of Americans say climate change is the most pressing environment problem, while a similar number (23%) identify water shortages and drought. Fewer Americans cite the shrinking of wilderness areas and animal habitats (11%) or endangered species (4%) as the most critical environmental issue.

Americans are significantly more likely to believe that people living in poorer developing countries will be harmed by climate change than they are to say that they personally, or U.S. residents as a whole, will be negatively affected by climate change.

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Less than one-quarter (24%) of Americans believe that they will be personally harmed a great deal by climate change, while 30% say climate change will affect them a moderate amount. More than 4-in-10 Americans say climate change will have only a little (23%) or no impact (22%) on them personally.

One-third (33%) of Americans say the U.S. public overall will experience a great deal of harm due to climate change, while 35% say the U.S. public will experience a moderate amount of harm. Three-in-ten Americans say that climate change will impact people living in the U.S. only a little (18%) or not at all (12%).

A majority (54%) of Americans say that people living in poorer developing countries will be harmed a great deal as a result of climate change, while 20% say they will experience a moderate amount of harm. Less than one-quarter of Americans believe that people living in developing countries will be affected only a little (10%) or not at all (12%) as a result of climate change.

About one-quarter (23%) of Americans say that climate change is a crisis and 36% say it is a major problem, while nearly 4-in-10 Americans say climate change is a minor problem (23%) or not a problem at all (16%).

The Climate Change Concern Index—a composite measure that combines perceptions about whether climate change is a crisis and whether it will have adverse personal effects—finds that nearly 3-in-10 (29%) Americans are very concerned about climate change, 21% are somewhat concerned, 29% are somewhat unconcerned, and 21% are very unconcerned.

More than 7-in-10 Hispanic Americans are very (46%) or somewhat (25%) concerned about the impact of climate change. Similarly, nearly 6-in-10 black Americans are very (36%) or somewhat (21%) concerned about climate change. By contrast, less than half of white Americans are very (23%) or somewhat (20%) concerned about climate change.

Two-thirds of Democrats are very or somewhat concerned about climate change (41% and 26%, respectively), compared to fewer than 3-in-10 Republicans (14% and 15%, respectively). Independents are nearly evenly divided.

More than 6-in-10 (63%) Americans agree that dealing with climate change now will help avoid more serious economic problems in the future, while 3-in-10 (30%) say that given our current economic problems, we cannot afford to deal with climate change right now.

The generational differences on this question are modest. Nearly 7-in-10 (68%) young adults (age 18-29) say we should deal with climate change now, compared to 59% of seniors (age 65 and older).

Three Factions of Americans: Climate Change Believers, Sympathizers, and Skeptics

Americans’ perspectives on whether the global temperature is rising have remained stable over the past few years. Nearly 7-in-10 (69%) Americans believe there is solid evidence that the earth’s average temperature has been increasing over the past few decades, while approximately one-quarter of Americans (26%) say they do not believe the earth is getting warmer. In 2011, an identical number of Americans (69%) said they believed that the earth’s average temperature was rising.

To better understand the range of belief in climate change, PRRI identified three groups of Americans, divided by their opinions about the existence and causes of climate change.

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Close to half (46%) of Americans say that the earth is getting warmer and that these changes are primarily the result of human activity. We characterize this group as climate change “Believers.”

One-quarter (25%) of Americans believe the global temperature is rising, but say the change is due to natural fluctuations in the earth’s environment or are uncertain about its cause. We describe this group as climate change “Sympathizers.”

Finally, more than one-quarter (26%) of Americans say there is no solid evidence that the earth’s temperature has been rising over the past few decades. We call this group climate change “Skeptics.”

Skeptics were asked to share, in their words, why they believe the earth’s temperature is not increasing. Answers varied considerably, but the most frequently cited reason (33% of all open-ended answers) was that they have not noticed a change in the weather around them.

Climate change Believers are substantially more likely to than Sympathizers or Skeptics to score high on the Climate Change Concern Index.

Nearly three-quarters of Believers are very (47%) or somewhat (27%) concerned about climate change.

About 4-in-10 Sympathizers are very (20%) or somewhat (22%) concerned about climate change.

Less than 1-in-5 Skeptics are very (7%) concerned or somewhat (11%) concerned about climate change, while more than 8-in-10 say they are somewhat (31%) or very (51%) unconcerned.

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Democrats have a higher percentage of climate change Believers within their ranks, while Republicans and Americans who identify with the Tea Party are more likely to be climate change Skeptics.

Nearly two-thirds (65%) of Democrats are climate change Believers, 20% are Sympathizers, and 13% are Skeptics.

Less than 1-in-4 (22%) Republicans are climate change Believers, 28% are Sympathizers, and nearly half (46%) are Skeptics.

Americans who identify with the Tea Party are even more skeptical about the existence of climate change than Republicans. Less than one-quarter (23%) of Tea Party members are climate change Believers, 23% are Sympathizers, and a majority (53%) are Skeptics.

White evangelical Protestants are more likely than any other religious group to be climate change Skeptics. Only 27% of white evangelical Protestants are climate change Believers, while 29% are Sympathizers and nearly 4-in-10 (39%) are Skeptics.

The Impact of Spiritual Experiences and Religious Institutions

To better understand how Americans’ spirituality intersects with their attitudes toward the environment, PRRI created a Spiritual Experiences Index by combining four spiritual experience measures.

The Spiritual Experiences Index finds that about 4-in-10 Americans report very high (19%) or high (21%) frequency of spiritual experiences. One-quarter (25%) of Americans report moderate frequency of spiritual experiences, and approximately one-third of Americans report low (16%) or very low (19%) frequency of spiritual experiences.

Americans who report higher frequency of spiritual experiences are generally more likely to score high on the Climate Change Concern Index. A majority of Americans who report spiritual experiences very frequently are very (35%) or somewhat (20%) concerned about climate change. In contrast, less than half of Americans who report very infrequent spiritual experiences are very (21%) or somewhat (20%) concerned about climate change.

However, there is no significant relationship between frequency of spiritual experiences and beliefs about the reality and causes of climate change.

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Most Americans who attend religious services at least once or twice a month hear little from their clergy leader about the issue of climate change. Just over one-third of Americans say their clergy leader speaks about climate change often (11%) or sometimes (25%). More than 6-in-10 Americans say their clergy leader rarely (29%) or never (33%) references climate change.

Americans who say their clergy leader speaks at least occasionally about climate change are more likely to be climate change Believers than Americans who tend not to hear about climate change in church (49% and 36%, respectively).

Americans who say their clergy leader speaks at least occasionally about climate change also score higher on the Climate Change Concern Index. More than 6-in-10 Americans who report hearing about climate change from their clergy leader at least occasionally are very (38%) or somewhat (24%) concerned about climate change, compared to approximately 4-in-10 (39%) Americans who attend congregations where the issue is rarely or never raised.

Theological Beliefs: The End Times, Providence, and Stewardship

Although a majority (54%) of Americans believe that science and religion are often in conflict, substantially fewer say that science clashes with their own religious beliefs. Nearly 6-in-10 (59%) Americans say that science does not conflict with their religious beliefs, while roughly 4-in-10 (38%) disagree saying that science sometimes conflicts with their religious beliefs. These attitudes have remained stable over the last few years.

When asked about these causes separately, Americans are more likely to say that recent natural disasters are the result of climate change (62%) than biblical “end times” (49%).

The number of Americans who believe natural disasters are evidence of the apocalypse has increased since 2011, when only 44% agreed.

White evangelical Protestants are much more likely to attribute the severity of recent natural disasters to the biblical “end times” (77%) than to climate change (49%).

Most Americans do not believe that God would intercede to prevent humans from destroying the earth. Approximately 4-in-10 (39%) Americans believe that God would not allow humans to destroy the earth, while a majority (53%) of Americans disagree.

Americans generally reject the idea that God intended humans to use the earth strictly for their own benefit. Nearly 6-in-10 (57%) Americans say God gave humans the task of living responsibly with animals, plants, and other resources, which are not just for human benefit. By contrast, about one-third (35%) of Americans believe that God gave human beings the right to use animals, plants, and all other resources of the planet solely for their own benefit.

Addressing Climate Change: Sacrifices and the Role of Business and Government

More than 6-in-10 (64%) Americans who believe that the global temperature is increasing say that major sacrifices will have to be made in order to solve the climate change problem, while roughly 3-in-10 (28%) say that technology will be able to solve the problem of climate change without requiring substantial sacrifices.

Regardless of whether Americans believe the primary solution to climate change will come from the private or public sector, nearly 7-in-10 (69%) Americans believe that the U.S. government needs to do more to address the issue of climate change, while nearly 3-in-10 (29%) Americans disagree. Support for increased government action on climate change has remained stable over the past two years.

Support for Energy Policies

Americans are broadly supportive of energy policies that place additional limits on carbon dioxide emissions, even if these policies impose new costs.

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Americans support placing stricter limits on vehicle emissions even if it results in higher car prices for consumers, while roughly one-third (32%) of Americans are opposed.

Nearly 6-in-10 (57%) Americans favor stricter limits on the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from power plants even if they raise the price of goods and services, while 38% of Americans are opposed.

Americans are more divided over policies related to the production of traditional fossil fuels.

A majority (52%) of Americans support the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from Canada’s oil sands region through the Midwest to refineries in Texas. Nearly 4-in-10 (37%) Americans are opposed to the building of the pipeline.

A slim majority (51%) of Americans oppose the increased use of “fracking,” a drilling method that uses high-pressure water and chemicals to extract oil and natural gas from underground rock formations. Approximately 4-in-10 (41%) Americans favor the increased use of “fracking.”

Americans are nearly evenly divided in their support for a policy that would impose an additional tax on companies that produce fossil fuels, even if the policy results in higher electricity costs: 47% are in favor, while 48% are opposed.

However, a majority of Americans support funding for research on alternatives to fossil fuels. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Americans favor increasing federal funding for research on renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydrogen, even if it raises taxes. One-third (33%) of Americans oppose such a change.

“Believers, Sympathizers, and Skeptics: Why Americans are Conflicted about Climate Change, Environmental Policy, and Science” was released at the American Academy of Religion’s 2014 Annual Meeting. Watch a video of the plenary session below. The event took place on Saturday, November 22 in San Diego, Calif.

Read the full report here.

 

The 2014 Religion, Values & Climate Change Survey was designed and conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in association with the American Academy of Religion and funded by The Nathan Cummings Foundation and The Ford Foundation. This survey will be released at the 2014 American Academy of Religion’s National Meeting on Saturday, November 22. For more information, click here.