Scroll To Top

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Why 97% is important - Yale US survey on public perceptions of climate change

Sou | 4:00 PM Go to the first of 20 comments. Add a comment

Fake sceptics, hard core deniers, are pretty well unshiftable in their "belief".

Click here for more of Collin Maessen's excellent videos

As you know, most people who comment at WUWT, for example, already made up their mind well before they heard evidence about climate and what's causing it to change. If they do search for evidence - it's to find "evidence" that they think will support their "belief" - and stop right there. You may recall the confessions of deniers at WUWT (see here and here and here) and at Judith Curry's blog (see here).

But as John Cook said in that short interview, that's not the audience...

Strange results from people in the USA

I'd say at least half the people in the USA still don't have much of a clue about climate change. Yet a majority, in some instances only a very small majority:
  • Do understand the global warming is happening (63% agree, 18% disagree)
  • Are worried about it (52% agree, 48% disagree)
  • Believe it will harm people in the USA (51% agree, 39% disagree)
  • Believe it will harm people in developing countries (52% agree, 35% disagree)
  • Believe it will harm future generations (61% agree, 26% disagree)

It's not just amazing that, even after all this time, people don't know that the science is in at this basic level. Notice too how people want to push the notion away - geographically and in time.

In the latest Yale survey, only 41% of those surveyed knew that most scientists know that global warming is happening, while a whopping 34% mistakenly thought there was a lot of disagreement among scientists about that.

And only 48% knew that it's us who are causing global warming, while a huge 35% think it's all down to nature.

A nation of contrasts - the majority want to shift to renewables

Contrast the above, though, with people clearly wanting to adopt the precautionary principle. A majority, larger than any of the above, are of the opinion that:
  • Research into renewable energy sources should be funded (77% agree, 21% disagree)
  • CO2 should be regulated as a pollutant (74% agree, 25% disagree)
  • Strict CO2 limits should be placed on existing coal-fired power plants (63% agree, 36% disagree)

These results are from the Yale Project on Climate Change, which has just released the results of its 2014 survey published in Nature Climate Change - and on an interactive website.

On the website, you can drill right down to county level, to see what people are thinking. The further you drill down the greater the margin of error. At the state level it's pretty solid AFAIK.

To get a better understanding of the results, read the scientists responses to a Reddit AMA - most of your questions will probably be answered there. (Those discussions are not easy to follow. Look for the comments with green highlights of credentials. They will be the responses from the scientists, and the questions they are responding to will be just above those.)

It's not as simple as political leaning

One thing they point out is that it's not as simple as saying "Democrats accept science, Republicans are deniers".  As Dr Peter Howe said on Reddit:
...there is a strong relationship between political orientation and how concerned people are about global warming. Global warming is an issue that has become extremely politicized over the past 10-15 years, and as a result where one falls on the left-right spectrum is a fairly good predictor of whether one thinks global warming is happening, human-caused, and a serious problem. However, there’s more going on there that can be seen in our maps—although the pattern is sometimes the familiar red state/blue state pattern, there are also differences that our tool picks up on. For example, a red state like Texas has a about the same level of worry about global warming as Minnesota, a blue state.

How best to let people know about the scientific consensus

Which leads me to another paper just published in PLOS One. It was also from researchers from Yale as well as George Mason University and Ohio State University. They did a study about the best ways to communicate the scientific consensus on climate change. They studied different ways of wording the message to the general public that at least 97% of climate scientists agree that we are causing global warming. Their study demonstrates how John Cook and his colleagues were spot on with their 97% consensus paper.

What they found was that if you just say "the majority of climate scientists agree", then it has no impact. People interpret "majority" in their own way - and usually way underestimate it (could be anything from 51% to 70% of scientists, far short of the actual 97% plus).

The most effective messages include the number - 97% or 97.1%. And it could be even more effective in face to face encounters, to ask a person what they think the number is, and then tell them the real percentage of experts who agree we're causing global warming - 97% plus!

From the abstract (my paras and emphasis):
The first experiment tested hypotheses about providing numeric versus non-numeric assertions concerning the level of scientific agreement. We found that numeric statements resulted in higher estimates of the scientific agreement.
The second experiment tested the effect of eliciting respondents’ estimates of scientific agreement prior to presenting them with a statement about the level of scientific agreement. Participants who estimated the level of agreement prior to being shown the corrective statement gave higher estimates of the scientific consensus than respondents who were not asked to estimate in advance, indicating that incorporating an “estimation and reveal” technique into public communication about scientific consensus may be effective.
The interaction of messages with political ideology was also tested, and demonstrated that messages were approximately equally effective among liberals and conservatives

The paper is open access, and very easy to read. It is tightly focused on the subject and doesn't extrapolate beyond the findings of their own research. On the contrary, as part of the conclusion the researchers write:
These studies provide no insight into the degree to which these communication effects are robust. For example, how long do the effects endure? How resistant are they to counter claims? Under what conditions do these scientific agreement messages influence other related climate beliefs, like certainty that human-caused climate change is occurring and support for action? Furthermore, in these experiments the scientific consensus message communicator was the AAAS—a large and trusted scientific society; would a less trusted messenger result in different (or boomerang) effects? Given the potential importance of setting the record straight on the scientific consensus about human-caused climate change, these are questions that warrant answers through further research, especially in experimental and longitudinal contexts.

References & Reading

Howe, Peter D., Matto Mildenberger, Jennifer R. Marlon, and Anthony Leiserowitz. "Geographic variation in opinions on climate change at state and local scales in the USA." Nature Climate Change (2015).  doi:10.1038/nclimate2583 (subs req'd)

Myers TA, Maibach E, Peters E, Leiserowitz A (2015) "Simple Messages Help Set the Record Straight about Scientific Agreement on Human-Caused Climate Change: The Results of Two Experiments". PLoS ONE 10(3): e0120985. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0120985 (open access)

Cook, John, Dana Nuccitelli, Sarah A. Green, Mark Richardson, Bärbel Winkler, Rob Painting, Robert Way, Peter Jacobs, and Andrew Skuce. "Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature." Environmental Research Letters 8, no. 2 (2013): 024024. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024024 (Open access)

More video interviews from Collin Maessen, of Real Sceptic.


  1. Sou, thanks for the shout-out. :)

    There's indeed a lot more on my channel, but for anyone reading this post the series AGU 2014 Tidbits – Anecdotes And Stories From The Front Lines Of Science is probably the most interesting. This is the series that the video is from that Sou embedded here and it contains a lot of short interesting clips of scientists explaining their research, science denial, or talking about interesting anecdotes.

    1. Your videos are pure gold, Collin. I'll be using them a lot more over time.

    2. Thanks, embeds really help with views with how YouTube currently handles subscriptions. :)

  2. What ever you do don't mention evangelicals. I mentioned them once but I think I got away with it.

    1. end-timers, prophecy idiots, bible beaters, holy rollers, fundamentalist, snake handlers, religious morons, rapture ready rubes, religious fools, science illiterates…

  3. "Do understand the global warming is happening (63% agree, 18% disagree)"

    There's a disconnect, though, between how much the public says they understand about climate change, and how well even the high (self-assessed) understanding folks do if you next give a short quiz. That combination of survey questions identifies an "overconfident" group that, perhaps unsurprisingly, correlates with politics.

  4. Americans are really a pretty stupid people. They've chosen to ignore science, evidence, observation, trends and history. This isn't entirely accidental either. Much of our culture is oriented around instant gratification and very short-term thinking. A lack of global awareness, geography and xenophobic thinking also characterizes Americans.

    I prefer the term Americant. Wading through the ridiculous and insanely stupid "climate change denial" is a total waste of effort. Those that embrace this scientifically and factually false position have chosen "stupid" over informed, aware, educated and even "interested".

    When the "percentages" indicate all of the above, then it's pretty clear that this isn't accidental, but deliberate. It's also malicious now. My words may be harsh, but they're nothing compared to what climate change denial is causing the whole of humanity.

    I absolutely, categorically refuse to excuse these people now. There is not a single credible reason for any American to be uninformed - or "stupid" on this topic. The evidence abounds everywhere, and yet this group of "dumb" choose to deny what they're own eyes can readily see.

    This is utterly inexcusable - and I will not give them any benefit of the doubt anymore. They've become a very dangerous group of complete fools that are hindering any possibility of global action to save humanity - because that is EXACTLY what is now at stake. Therefore, we ought not tolerate their "dumb" a moment longer. ~JR~

  5. Anon,

    Americans are really a pretty stupid people.

    As your fellow citizen I want to disagree with the broad nature of your assessment, but find that I honestly cannot. I also gather from various acquantances and friends 'round the world that it is indeed how we appear from the outside as well. Thinks like "infantile bull throwing a tantrum in a tea-service shop" are not uncommon metaphors.

    At risk of self-incriminating, copiously opinionated and dumb may be directly correlated. A quieter, less visible majority of competent intelligence lurking beneath the caterwaul seems plausible -- yet also smacks of faint hope and wishful thinking. From where I'm sitting, it looks as if reason will only triumph by brute political force since that's all anyone at the highest levels of government appear willing or capable of doing -- BOTH sides of the increasingly polarized partisan aisle. Which I think is not just stupidly unproductive, but also potentially quite hazardous.

    I prefer the term Americant.

    Indeed. Now that we've both had our rants, let's not be overly defeatist. I believe that one way to go is to begin offering things in trade. Frex: Keystone XL for a subsidized geothermal project.

  6. "Americans are really a pretty stupid people"

    Given that Australians elected a climate science denying Prime Minister and gave America Rupert Murdoch, proprietor of Fox News and the WSJ, that would make Australians even stupider. :-)

    You are missing the point of the article and the research. It is ideology & vested interest, not stupidity that drives climate science denial. And it is the non stop propaganda in the conservative media, the "think" tanks and their fake research and the false balance in the supposedly more rational media that helps spread the misinformation.

    The hard core deniers would still reject climate science if there were palm trees growing in Antarctica. They are not and never will be an appropriate target of AGW communications.

    But there is a large number, in some cases even a majority of people in both countries who are already concerned and who have probably never read a climate crank blog before - they are the target.

    1. "Given that Australians elected a climate science denying Prime Minister and gave America Rupert Murdoch, proprietor of Fox News and the WSJ, that would make Australians even stupider. :-)"

      I suppose that makes our version of Americants 'Australiarses'...

  7. Looking at the spread of acceptance of the science it seems to the eyechrometer that there is a correlation with the degree of urbanisation of the population, and this seems to go right down to the county level. The county urbanisation data are to be found here, and it would be interesting to compare them statistically with the Yale data. Unfortunately my institution does not have a NCC sub so I can't see if their data are available for comparison.

    In my own corner of Australia personal experience indicates that this correlation holds, with even climate-dependent farmers often ignoring the elephant in the room unless they're already significantly impacted by its effects (there's a distinct modifying qualifier - those farmers who are tertiary-educated have a strong propensity to not follow the perception bias of their rural neighbours). It's such a stark relationship that I have many personal proxies for modeling non-acceptance of the science: the cattle dog ownership index, the flannelette shirt proportion index, the ute density index, the arks abundance index...

    The list goes on...

    And in my experience urban/suburban boganisation substitutes closely for rurality.

  8. I'm quite sure that surveys of this type, circa 2014 (or shortly thereafter), if conducted in the UK, NZ, CA and AU, would clearly show just how "dumb" people are in those countries. Common denominator? English speaking countries. So obviously, the UK must lead the world in science misinformation (major logic flaw, but, since you all appear to be blaming AmeriKa for being mostly nominally stupid, why not). Works for me. Instead of Blame Canada (South Park), it should be Blame Engalish.

    I put "dumb" in quotes simply because nobody has mentioned ignorance per se.

    Most people (p>0.5 meaning the majority) are completely ignorant on the subject of climate science. When the majority of the MSM straight out starts calling deniers deniers, who knows what would happen, but most likely Rand Paul would be the next POTUS Think about for a moment, two term POTUS Rand Paul leading AmeriKa back to the 18th century.

    Best examples of AmeriKan stupidity? 247 viewing of C-SPAN during sessions of the HoR. Stupid people elect stupid people. Go figure.

  9. A very large proportion of humanity >99.9% do not have a clue about science and the technology it generates. This is why the disseminators of false memes can get away with their lies. The general population have no real knowledge basis to evaluate ANY claims whether scientific evidence based or made up crap by denialists or spin doctors.
    I was once asked why I did not have a mobile phone at work when nearly everybody else did. These young people thought I did not understand modern technology. I told them it was my generation and the one before that invented modern electronic technology, starting with quantum mechanics.
    All I can see is a generation mesmerised by a tiny screen while ignoring the real world around them. They have not a clue how the technology works. They are just monkeys pushing the buttons or fingering the capacitive active screen.
    Maybe when the background in the selfies they seem to continuously take shows complete destruction of the biosphere that supports all of us, they may take some notice of reality.

  10. Paul of Los BañosApril 13, 2015 at 2:20 PM

    "A very large proportion of humanity >99.9% do not have a clue about science"
    This might be true when measured on a written test, but science is, going by its deeper meaning, our understanding of how natural laws or rules work as a result of our investigation through the use of our senses. This means that even though most people cannot write down in words these rules, their brain knows it by experience.
    Screen pushers are the minority in a world where most people live in developing countries and manual labor is the norm. Common sense belong to the common man.

    1. Human brains are pretty good at hiding from lions and tigers and bears, and predicting that big dark clouds bring rain, but they're just not wired to understand processes that occur over hundreds or thousands of years. Not even if those humans stand outside for whole lifetimes, or even for successive generations.

      Common "sense" in these cases is as useful as a sunroof on a submarine. This is why science came up with the Big Bang, and human "senses" came up with sky fairies.

    2. Paul I have eight brothers and two sisters all younger than me. I am not a trained teacher yet I managed to teach my younger brothers and sisters to really understand differential and integral calculus. At the time I was very amazed at their lack of seeing what I thought was self evident. They all went on to do well in electronics and engineering. They have since thanked me for my perseverance and still laugh at my lack of patience at the time. It has become a family joke that I was a grumpy old man when I was barely in my twenties. It is no surprise now I am in my sixties that I have not improved! Bert

    3. Paul of Los BañosApril 14, 2015 at 9:01 PM

      Bernard, you know that some ancient societies have actually discovered scientific principles that required multi-generational observation. A good example is the Mayan calendar.
      Bert, I am a grumpy old man too. Of course you must have observed from teaching that people will learn what they want or need to learn, not what you want them to learn. So a good teacher tricks the student into liking what you are teaching. If people don't know enough about climate change, it's because they don't care to know.

    4. "Bernard, you know that some ancient societies have actually discovered scientific principles that required multi-generational observation. A good example is the Mayan calendar. "

      With an emphasis on "some"...

      And yes, it's a trivially apparent fact that science could be and was conducted by pre-Western cultures. But you don't explain how much of these discovered "scientific principles" arose from the application of systematic proto-scientific method as opposed to "common sense" - I would suggest that the insight in these cases was led by a few extraordinary logicians amongst a lot of others simply jumping at the aforementioned sky fairies.

      Your original point was that lay "know[ing]" is a good substitute for science derived via "written test", and this is a fallacious comparison. Quite simply, if the understanding of the consequences of fossil carbon emissions was left simply to the observations by labourers working outdoors, it would likely take another generation (at least) before there was a structured understanding that something systemic was happening, and quite likely that there would never any any understanding that it's the emission of carbon dioxide from the burning of coal and oil that is causing the retention of heat in the atmosphere. As evidence I proffer the fact that the much of the laiety is still resisting any serious acceptance of global climate change even thogh it's been pointed out to them, and there appears to be little spontaneous lay movement to date, that is independent of the communication of the actual science, and that has cottoned on to the fact of emissions-caused global warming.

      If your point was valid there'd be a global movement of concern about warming completely independent of science, and with few exceptions such does not exist. The Arctic peoples are such exceptions, but absent the presence of modern science their observations of the fact of warming are vastly different to an operative understanding of the processes causing that warming, and they would almost certainly never be able to constuct a corpus of knowledge that would result in action until long after it's too late to do anything - if they actually ever could...

      I'm simply pointing out that humans aren't designed at the instinctual level to viscerally grok the nature of this type of problem and to respond effectively to it. And that point stands.

  11. There's an interesting related survey of 1868 climate scientists produced by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency PBL for which they have just released the detailed breakdown of all the questions in the survey by subgroup of respondents.

    Bart Verheggen has the details.

    The report notes that: "Consistent with previous studies, we found that the level of agreement with the IPCC position increases with increasing expertise in climate science, as judged by the self-reported number of peer-reviewed publications on climate change. Likewise, this level of agreement is stronger for respondents with self-reported domain expertise."


Instead of commenting as "Anonymous", please comment using "Name/URL" and your name, initials or pseudonym or whatever. You can leave the "URL" box blank. This isn't mandatory. You can also sign in using your Google ID, Wordpress ID etc as indicated. NOTE: Some Wordpress users are having trouble signing in. If that's you, try signing in using Name/URL or OpenID. Details here.

Click here to read the HotWhopper comment policy.