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The diverse geography of climate change views – Yale Climate Opinion Map

By Susie Wang on March 9, 2017

Climate change communicators and researchers find themselves navigating a world where there is growing dismissal of expert knowledge.

In this post-truth, post-Trump time, many of us are concerned about what will happen to climate change action in the United States and around the world.

Last week, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication updated their Climate Opinion Map, and the results show both good and bad news. The good news is that most Americans think that global warming is happening and support various climate change policies. The bad news is that far fewer are worried about climate change, or think climate change will affect them personally. Only a third have talked about climate change with their friends and family more than ‘occasionally’.

In a sense, the Climate Opinion Map confirms what has been found in other places around the world: while most people believe that climate change is happening, far fewer believe that it is their problem. For most, the issue is held at arm’s length, and there remains a lot of silence around the issue.

On one hand, it seems that there is more trust in scientists than we might have expected, as the majority (71%) of Americans say that they trust climate scientists about climate change. On the other hand, there is still a lot of confusion about whether there is a consensus among scientists, and whether climate change is caused by humans.

Importantly, there is great diversity in views by state, county and congressional district, where neighbouring regions can be drastically different from one another. For instance, in Orange County in North Carolina 81% trust climate scientists, whereas in Person county just next door, only 68% do. The location of universities and research institutions almost certainly plays a part in this result, (e.g. the Research Triangle in North Carolina falls in Orange, Wake and Durham county, all of which have higher than average trust in scientists). The people residing in these areas may have more exposure to these institutions, and more knowledge of science than those in other areas. It could also be that there is a level of social “approval” of the local industry, where these industries become part of local identity and culture.

The Climate Opinion Map demonstrates that in America, climate change engagement is still a very important issue. Aside from being an excellent tool to analyse geographic support for climate change, the Climate Map reiterates the need to answer some key questions: How do we start conversations about climate change? How do we get people to care? How can we bring climate change closer to home?

What is clear is that we need to understand the values and identities of different groups, how their experiences of climate change differ, and what their needs and concerns are.

If you’re interested in some answers to these questions, and in the differences between America and Europe, have a look at the results of the European Perceptions of Climate Change survey, a multinational project led by Cardiff University, and that we have been collaborating on. Our ‘Recommendations for Public Engagement’ Guide is based on the brand new findings in this survey.

On a final note, the data in the Climate Opinion Map predates some key recent events, particularly the election of Donald Trump. As previous research has shown, voting behaviour can lead to changes in belief (1) and changes in climate change attitudes (2). However, as of last month, at least half of Trump voters reported that they believed in climate change, and the majority supported renewable energy (3) – at least for now. On this sobering note, let’s see what happens to the Climate Opinion Map over the next few years.

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1.Mullainathan & Washington, 2009
2.McCrea, Leviston & Walker, 2015
3.Leiserowitz, et al., 2017

By Dr Susie Wang

Susie is Research Associate at Climate Outreach, after working for the organisation as a Senior Research Consultant for a number of years. She has a background in environmental and social psychology, and comes to Climate Outreach after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, and her PhD at the University of Western Australia. 

Growing up in Australia, Susie was figuring out what to do with her life in the confusing context of the country’s acute vulnerability to climate change (extreme heat, bushfires, and drought) and politically polarised landscape of climate delay and denial.  For this reason, Susie is interested in the factors that lead people to feel close to climate change, particularly the role of emotions, identity and social connections. Her work spans climate change communications, imagery, pro-environmental behaviours, neuroscience, and behavioural economics. Aside from English, Susie also speaks Mandarin, and is attempting to learn Dutch. She is based in the Netherlands, where she enjoys making art, climbing rocks, and growing food in her backyard.

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