While much of the world has no trouble understanding the basic truth about humans’ role in causing climate change, the landscape is a little different in the United States. Rather than being a straightforward, mainstream idea, anthropogenic climate change is a polarizing topic in the U.S., riling up those all across the political spectrum. People in other countries tend to have faith in basic scientific consensus; people in the U.S. tend to believe that both sides must be heard on this issue.
This is largely because of the talking points parroted by Republican politicians. Donald Trump for instance, recently went on 60 Minutes and disputed the findings of scientists who have evidence of climate change, arguing that they “have a very big political agenda” and that “we have scientists that disagree.” This is nonsense, more or less. According to a recent report in The Guardian, an overwhelming 97 percent of experts agree that climate change is humans’ fault. The problem is that in America, the public doesn’t seem to know that.
John Cook, a professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, researched this topic and found that there’s a wide range of levels of awareness in America about the climate science consensus.
“The Alarmed are fully convinced of the reality and seriousness of climate change and are already taking individual, consumer and political action to address it,” Cook explained. “The Concerned are also convinced that global warming is happening and a serious problem, but have not yet engaged the issue personally. Three other Americas—the Cautious, the Disengaged and the Doubtful—represent different stages of understanding and acceptance of the problem, and none are actively involved.”
So how has it been so easy to convince so many people in the United States that climate change isn’t real? A lot of it comes down to language.
It’s often been repeated that climate change is “only a theory,” which makes it sound unconvincing. This is only because most people have a fundamental misunderstanding about the definition of “theory” in the scientific community: a theory is not just a guess; it’s an idea that’s been rigorously tested and that scientists assume to be true, absent convincing evidence otherwise. Gravity, for example, is also a “only a theory,” but try to find one person who doesn’t believe gravity exists.
It’s important that people understand the scientific consensus on the climate change issue. In fact, Cook has argued that knowing about the 97 percent figure can be something of a “gateway belief”: once people understand that scientists agree about the climate, they’re more likely to accept reality and begin to support actual policies that make a difference.
Basic awareness of scientific facts is the first step toward changing people’s perceptions and shrinking the partisan gap.
Photo by Avivi Aharon / Shutterstock.com