Experts on Camera

Dr. Jonathon Schuldt: What motivates people to care about climate change (or not)

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There is a scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is happening, but there are a range of views among the public about how much to care, or what, if anything, to do about it.

On Wednesday, April 12, 2023, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Jonathon Schuldt, an associate professor of communication at Cornell University and Executive Director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. He discussed topics including: factors that predict people’s attitudes about climate change; the psychology of how people think about climate change; trends in public attitudes about climate change over time; how language matters—for example, how people have reacted differently to the phrase “climate change” compared to “global warming”; and common misperceptions about climate-related attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

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JONATHON SCHULDT: My name is Jonathon Schuldt. I’m the executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University, where I’m also an associate professor of communication. And my research looks at public opinion about environmental issues and the social factors that shape it, including things like how we communicate about issues like climate change, and also how environmental attitudes differ across social groups.


Interview with SciLine

What are some of the factors that predict people’s attitudes about climate change?


JONATHON SCHULDT: I think it’s important to recognize that although people’s attitudes towards climate change do differ—like they do for virtually any issue— overall, a clear majority of the American public accept that climate change is happening. They think it’s human caused, and they report being worried about climate change. We know this from the many high quality scientific polls that are regularly conducted on this issue. And for example, recent surveys from the Associated Press, and NORC show that over 60% of U.S. adults feel that climate change is mostly or entirely caused by human activities. Other polling results from Yale and George Mason University, tell us that 65% of the U.S. adult public reports being worried about global warming. And so that said, of course, there are differences. Of course, there are some groups who are more concerned than others. If we dig into those survey results a little bit more, we see some polling showing that younger Americans are reporting some of the highest levels of concerns. Lower-income Americans are sometimes more concerned than higher-income Americans. Americans with more education tend to be more concerned. Race and ethnicity also matters here. Hispanics, and Latinos in the U.S., Black Americans, report some of the highest levels of concerns. And of course, politics matters here, too. It’s important to acknowledge that the liberals and Democrats report higher levels of worry about climate change, concern about global warming—and also more support for policies to address it—than conservatives and Republicans do.

Over time, what are some of the trends in public attitudes toward climate change?


JONATHON SCHULDT: We’re very fortunate in the U.S. to not only have so many great organizations doing polling on this, but we have polling going back two decades or more in some cases, including surveys that have used the same question, fielded repeatedly over time. And, that is super valuable, because that gives us a really unique insight into how public opinion might be changing on this issue over the decades. Let me give you a couple of examples from surveys that Gallup has done. So, Gallup has asked a question about whether people think global warming poses a serious threat to them or their way of life. And if you go back to 2001, 31% of the U.S. adult public said: Yeah, global warming is going to pose a serious threat to me. But that figure has steadily risen over the decades. And in the latest poll that I’m aware from last year in March of 2022, on that figure it was 45%—so a steady increase over time. Another Gallup question reaches back even further into the late 90s. In 1997, the American public was asked whether they thought the seriousness of global warming was generally underestimated in the news. And there 27%, back in the 1990s, thought that it was generally underestimated in the news. But that figure was 40% as of last year, and it was the most common response given in the survey. And so, these longer term trends suggest that where there are changes in public opinion, it’s that the American public is growing more concerned and not less concerned.

What can you tell us about how language matters in all of this—for example, how people react to “climate change” versus “global warming”?


JONATHON SCHULDT: With an issue like climate change, it’s so important. People often ask what’s the role of words and how we talk about this? What’s the role of language? And especially when it comes to terms like climate change and global warming, which are so commonly used in the media. They’re often used interchangeably, even though they mean different things right. Global warming is referring to a temperature increase in global average surface temperatures over time. Climate change encompasses warming, but also a broader suite of changes that we’re seeing to the climate. But research that I’ve been involved in—and many others—has looked into this issue. And, what it’s shown us is that there was a time when the American public reported more confidence that climate change was happening as compared to global warming. We saw that was particularly true among Republicans and conservatives in the United States. And we found that in data around 2010, a little over 10 years ago. Over time, that wording effect seems to have diminished in data from 2020. When we revisited this, that effect was much smaller, or maybe even non existent. And it could be that over time, the American public has just grown more aware of this issue. It could be that their attitudes have become more certain and this wording effect no longer exists. You know, aside from the terms global warming and climate change, there’s recent evidence that using language to communicate the strong scientific consensus on the issue might be a promising way to build public support for addressing climate change. It’s perhaps surprising that the American public underestimates the strong scientific consensus on the issue. Over 99% of climate scientists acknowledge that climate change is happening and that it’s human caused, and simply communicating that point clearly can lead the public to update how they view where scientists stand. And that’s important, because that seems to be associated with expressing more personal concern about climate change and also more personal support for policies to address climate change.

What are some common misperceptions about climate-related attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors?


JONATHON SCHULDT: One of the biggest misperceptions is that people just don’t care very much or aren’t very worried about climate change. It doesn’t really matter which group you ask the public about. You can ask them: Hey, how concerned do you think the American public overall is, how concerned you think men are, women, lower-income Americans, wealthier Americans. It doesn’t really matter. Each of those groups is in fact more concerned than we often think they are, according to some work that myself and many other researchers have done. What’s interesting about this tendency to underestimate others’ concerns about climate change is that it’s not equal across groups. Some research that we’ve done shows that some of the groups that in fact report the strongest concerns about climate change—this includes Hispanics and Latinos, Black Americans, lower income Americans—surprisingly, those groups are perceived by the American public to be among the least concerned groups about climate change. And so, I think these very widespread misperceptions are important to take note of and to address, because if you if you think that people around you don’t care very much about an issue like climate change, you’re unlikely to speak up about it. You’re unlikely to talk about it. And it’s likely that talking about climate change is an important step in making lifestyle changes to help address climate change—or to discussing or supporting new policies to address climate change.

Can you say more about the political divide on climate change?


JONATHON SCHULDT: We hear so much about the political divide on climate change. And indeed, it’s true. A person’s politics is one of the strongest predictors of where they stand on the issue. But at the same time, I think it’s important to recognize that the political divide—it might not be as large as we think. There’s a couple of polls you can look to—recent polls showing that a clear majority of Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge that climate change is really happening. There was also a recent poll done by the Pew Research Center, showing that, I think, 58% of Republicans or those who lean Republican reported that climate change was at least a somewhat serious problem. And so, it is important to recognize the reality—like climate change is a political, it’s a politicized issue. But at the same time, if we focus too much on that, we might miss the fact that there’s perhaps more bipartisan support on this issue than we often assume.

How are reporters doing covering climate change issues?

[Posted April 12, 2023 | Download video]