Climate Change: Who You Are Affects What You Believe

Author: Allison Goldstein

To say climate change is front of mind these days would be putting it mildly. Hotter global temperatures are extending droughts, strengthening hurricanes, worsening wildfires, and flooding coastal areas (Callery, n.d.). And if the physical evidence isn’t enough, scientists and governing bodies worldwide are putting out report after report indicating that if humanity doesn’t do something—and soon—the survival of current and future generations will in jeopardy (Denchak, 2016). As naturalist David Attenborough put it in his speech at the United Nations’ 2018 climate summit, “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon” (Visser, 2018).

Yet, as President Trump has repeatedly demonstrated, not everyone treats science as fact. A substantial portion of the world’s population rejects scientific evidence that the planet is gradually heating up and that human activity is the cause (WIRED, 2018); according to a 2007–2008 Gallup poll, only 41% of global citizens who are aware of global warming perceive it as a threat (Pugliese & Ray, 2009).

thumbnail image: Climate Change: Who You Are Affects What You Believe

While many of us shake our heads and wonder “How can these people ignore all the evidence?” we often fail to recognize many of the factors that affect our belief in (or skepticism of) global warming. For instance: education. If we aren’t aware of global warming or aren’t able to understand the phenomenon, then we certainly cannot believe it. Given that nearly 14% of the global adult population is unable to read (World Bank Group, n.d.), that’s hundreds of millions of adults who may not know about or understand—and therefore care about—global warming. (The 2007–2008 Gallup poll put the estimate of “unaware” adults even higher, at 39% [Pugliese & Ray, 2009].)

That said, there are admittedly many millions more who know about climate change, yet refuse to believe it. So what other factors contribute to believing—or rejecting—climate change?

Political Affiliation

A quick look at any media coverage of climate change reveals that political affiliation seems to be a significant a factor. Still, media isn’t fact. Surveys, however, help to get at fact, and in the United States, extensive polling by the Pew Research Center has found a fairly concrete divide between Republicans and Democrats: Republicans are less likely to trust climate scientists or to believe that human activity is causing climate change (Funk & Kennedy, 2016).

Perhaps even more persuasive is a global meta-analysis published in Nature Climate Change. Hornsey, Harris, Bain, and Fielding (2016) synthesized 25 polls and 171 academic studies across 56 nations to examine what demographic variables correlated with belief in climate change. While the researchers identified a range of influential variables such as age, education, income, race, and sex, “the largest demographic correlate of climate change belief [was] political affiliation” (p. 622), with an effect nearly twice the size of any other variable. People who affiliated with more liberal parties were more likely to believe in climate change, compared to those who affiliated with more conservative parties.


So when it comes to belief in climate change, politics matter . . . and it’s hard to divorce politics from geography. For instance, if you live in Latin America, which underwent a leftist surge (the “Pink Tide”) in the 1990s and 2000s, you are considerably more likely to care about climate change than if you live in the Middle East. Seventy-four percent of Latin America views climate change as a serious problem, and 77% believes that climate change is harming people right now (Stokes, Wike, & Carle, 2015). The Middle East, by comparison—and in spite of experiencing longer droughts, hotter heat waves, and more frequent dust storms (The Economist, 2018)—is the region of the world that is least concerned about climate change, with 38% and 26% of its population believing climate change is a serious problem and harming people right now, respectively (Stokes, Wike, & Carle, 2015).

In terms of individual countries, Brazilians are the most concerned with climate change; a 2015 Pew Research Center survey revealed that 89% of the country agreed with the statement “climate change is a very serious problem” (Stokes, Wike, & Carle, 2015). (Although given the political shift in Brazil in the last few years, this could already be changing.) In contrast, about 55% of France, Italy, and Germany agreed that climate change is a serious problem; 45% of the United States, Japan, and South Africa agreed; and only 18% of China agreed (Stokes, Wike, & Carle, 2015).


Some research has correlated youth with concern over climate change. For instance, one Gallup poll found that in America, 70% of the population aged 18–34 worries about global warming, compared to 62% of those 35–54 and 56% of those 55 and older (Reinhart, 2018). This youth–worry connection seems logical, given that the younger a person is, the longer he or she will have to deal with the cumulative effects of climate change. However, this pattern of concern does not hold across all studies. While a national survey conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change did find that Americans aged 18–34 are more trusting of scientists and more likely to believe that humans are causing global warming, these young adults were not more likely to worry about it. “About half of all American adults—young and old—are either somewhat or very worried about global warming, with the other half either not very or not at all worried” according to the report (Feldman, Nisbet, Leiserowitz, & Maibach, 2010, p. 4). Meanwhile, other studies suggest that even mere belief in climate change is not necessarily skewed toward the young: a British Social Attitudes Report found that while 79% of adults aged 18–34 believe that climate change is caused by humans, this belief was shared by similar proportions of adults aged 35–54 (80%) and 55–64 (78%; Park, Clery, Curtice, Phillips, & Utting, 2012). Thus, age is not a surefire predictor of belief in—or concern about—climate change.

However, age has been linked to political affiliation, with a majority of American millennials tilting Democratic (Pew Research Center, 2015) and older Brits more likely to vote Conservative (Tilley, 2015). And so, in the end, as the 2016 Nature Climate Change meta-analysis suggested, belief in and concern over climate change all seem to come back to political affiliation . . . which would explain why the fight over who takes political office has escalated so severely. The survival of our species might depend on it.

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