The U.S. is a hotbed of climate science denial when compared with other countries, with international polling finding a significant number of Americans do not believe human-driven climate change is occurring.
A total of 13 per cent of Americans polled in a 23-country survey conducted by the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project agreed with the statement that the climate is changing “but human activity is not responsible at all.” A further five per cent said the climate was not changing.
Only Saudi Arabia (16 per cent) and Indonesia (18 per cent) had a higher proportion of people doubtful of manmade climate change.
The US has the highest percentage of climate deniers in the rich world
Fossil fuel interests "are so well organized and have managed to turn climate change into a controversial subject that gets shut down. It’s clearly working," says Margaret Klein Salamon, a clinical psychologist. #climatedesk
Americans were also more likely than any other western country polled to say they did not know whether the climate was changing or people were responsible – a total of 13 per cent said this.
But despite these views, the great majority of U.S. citizens do accept the science of climate change, with nearly four in 10 saying human activity was at least partly responsible, potentially with other factors, and a further third taking the stronger view that human activity is the dominant cause.
Scientists overwhelmingly agree that people are causing climate change through the exponential increase of greenhouse gas emissions over the years. Global emissions are still rising, and the last four years have been the hottest since records began.
Global carbon emissions in 2018 are set to hit an all-time high of 37.1bn tonnes
Last October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body of the world’s leading climate scientists, warned of the dire consequences of continued global warming, indicating the window of opportunity for action had narrowed to as little as 12 years.
A global movement of young people calling for action has sprung up as a result, spearheaded by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, giving way in London to a more feisty display of street protest orchestrated by the Extinction Rebellion group.
In the US, street protests have been less visible but the political landscape around climate change has been transformed by the Green New Deal, an effort by the Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to spur a second world war-level mobilization to stem the increasingly severe hurricanes and wildfires that are racking the country.
This week a UN global assessment report, compiled over three years by more than 450 scientists and diplomats, warned that a million species are at risk, largely as a result of human actions that are accelerating the decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems at an alarming rate.
But wider denial of climate science is down to a concerted campaign of misinformation by fossil fuel interests and aspects of American character, according to Margaret Klein Salamon, a clinical psychologist who founded the advocacy group Climate Mobilization.
“The Koch brothers and the fossil fuel industry have put billions of dollars into lying to the American public, even sending literature to science teachers in schools,” Salamon said. “They are so well organized and have managed to turn climate change into a controversial subject that gets shut down. It’s clearly working.
“There is also the issue of American individualism, remnants of manifest destiny, that don’t set us up well for understanding that we are part of the web of life. The American dream is quite self-involved. We need a new American dream.”
Americans also appear unusually prone to climate-related conspiracy theories, the YouGov data suggests. A total of 17 per cent of those polled agreed that “the idea of manmade global warming is a hoax that was invented to deceive people”.
Belief in this conspiracy theory, which was previously invoked by Donald Trump, who falsely claimed climate change was made up by China, increases with age and also conservative political ideology. A total of 52 per cent of Americans who described themselves as “very right wing” to YouGov insisted global warming was a hoax.
In Europe, fewer than one in 10 people across the major countries surveyed thought the climate was not changing or not changing owing to human activity, with only Poland showing a slightly higher number, with 12 per cent taking one of these views.
In the UK, the public’s appetite for stronger action on climate change appears to have increased markedly in the past few weeks alone, after this polling was carried out. The Extinction Rebellion mass protests have met with broad support, and the youth activist Thunberg was greeted by senior politicians, including the Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and the environment secretary, Michael Gove.
Last week the UK government’s statutory adviser, the Committee on Climate Change, recommended ways in which the UK could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by mid-century, and the U.K. parliament voted that the world was in a state of “climate emergency” and that action must be taken accordingly.
Individuals often shrug that there is little they can do on their own – but the YouGov survey found people are already examining their own shopping habits for environmental reasons.
A clear majority of those surveyed across all countries took the view that it was fairly or very important to buy ethical goods made in socially and environmentally responsible ways.
Perhaps surprisingly, support for ethical shopping was weakest in Germany, with only 54 per cent of people regarding ethical shopping as important, while 40 per cent of people in the U.K. and the U.S. viewed it as unimportant.
The YouGov polling data, published exclusively by the Guardian, shows a clear majority of people around the world think climate change is happening and that it is all or partly down to human actions.
Though holdouts still remain, particularly among people with self-described very right wing political views – a third of whom either took a skeptical stance or said they did not know when asked about climate change – there appears a mandate in this data for politicians to take a bolder approach to dealing with global warming, said Wendel Trio, the director of Climate Action Network Europe, a civil society group.
“Poll after poll confirms that there is a large majority of citizens who recognize that climate change is happening and is manmade,” said Trio. “Citizens expect governments to act and reduce our negative impact on the climate. Governments have the obligation to drastically increase emission reductions and protect their citizens from climate disasters.”
What is the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project?
The project is a new annual survey of global attitudes in 23 of the world's biggest countries, covering almost 5 billion people.
The 2019 survey canvassed 25,325 people online across much of Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia in February and March.
Questions about populist attitudes and convictions were inserted in order to derive a "populist cohort", and discover what this group of people think about major world issues from immigration to vaccination, social media and globalization.
The full methodology can be found here.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 1:15 p.m. ET on May 9, 2019 to correct a formatting error.