An exhaustive scientific report unveiled this month concluded that the earth is experiencing the warmest period in recorded history and that humans are the dominant cause of the temperature rise observed since the mid-20th century. That consensus does not extend to the American public.
Climate change divides Americans, but in an unlikely way: The more education that Democrats and Republicans have, the more their beliefs in climate change diverge.
This chart , based on a Gallup survey from March 2015, demonstrates this relationship clearly. About one in four Republicans with only a high school education said they worried about climate change a great deal. But among college-educated Republicans, that figure decreases, sharply, to 8 percent.
This relationship persists even when pollsters pose different kinds of questions about climate change – when Republicans are asked if they believe global warming “will never happen,” if they think it poses “a serious threat to way of life in your lifetime” or if it is caused by “natural changes in the environment.”
This may seem counterintuitive, because better-educated Republicans are more likely to be aware of the scientific consensus that human activity is contributing to climate change. But in the realm of public opinion, climate change isn’t really a scientific issue. It’s a political one.
Even though better-educated Republicans may have more exposure to information about the science around climate change, they also have more exposure to partisan messages about it. And communications research says that matters more.
Few other national issues divide as sharply by education as climate change does. At the request of The New York Times, Andrew Dugan and Jonathan Rothwell of Gallup compiled estimates of Americans’ attitudes by party and education on a wide range of issues, including race, immigration, taxes and values. Climate change is near the top of that list.
Gap between college-educated Democrats and Republicans
On many other issues – social issues in particular, including abortion, gay marriage and divorce – more education is associated with higher rates of acceptance, regardless of party. Gaps between Democrats and Republicans persisted, but the relationships moved more or less in tandem:
Issues where attitudes change in tandem with education
On most other issues, education had little effect. Americans’ views on terrorism, immigration, taxes on the wealthiest, and the state of health care in the United States did not change appreciably by education for Democrats and Republicans.
Only a handful of issues had a shape like the one for climate change, in which higher education corresponded with higher agreement among Democrats and lower agreement among Republicans.
Issues where education has a different relationship depending on your party
So what distinguishes these issues, climate change in particular?
First, climate change is a relatively new and technically complicated issue. On these kinds of matters, many Americans don’t necessarily have their own views, so they look to adopt those of political elites. And when it comes to climate change, conservative elites are deeply skeptical.
This can trigger what social scientists call a polarization effect, as described by John Zaller, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, in his 1992 book about mass opinion. When political elites disagree, their views tend to be adopted first by higher-educated partisans on both sides, who become more divided as they acquire more information.
It may be easier to think about in terms of simple partisanship. Most Americans know what party they belong to, but they can’t be expected to know the details of every issue, so they tend to adopt the views of the leaders of the party they already identify with.
Climate change is not a social issue like gay marriage, divorce, racism or abortion – issues where Democrats’ and Republicans’ views move in tandem with education. On those kinds of issues, college-educated Americans of both parties tend to be more progressive.
But Americans do not treat climate change like a scientific issue either. In the past, consensus from the scientific community on factual issues effectively ended serious disagreement among elites, whether it was about things like whether blacks and whites have the same kind of blood or whether homosexuality was rooted in mental illness.
This shift – toward treating climate change as a political rather than as a scientific issue – is relatively new. As Mr. Zaller wrote in an update to “The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion”: “Science-minded elites are not the principal initiators of new partisan policies; interest groups, political intellectuals and perhaps even ambitious politicians are more important actors. The dynamics of public opinion formation may still be top-down, but science-minded elites are not the top.”