Americans are more polarized over climate change than abortion, polls suggest

Americans are deeply divided on climate change
(Image credit: AP/YouTube)

Scientists are overwhelmingly convinced that climate change is real, largely caused by human activity, and a deeply serious problem. The American electorate, on the other hand, is deeply divided over the issue. That didn't use to be the case, The Associated Press reminds us, noting that two decades ago, the leading senator proposing action on global warming was a Republican (John McCain, but still). Then, sometime around 1997, when Vice President Al Gore helped negotiate the Kyoto Protocol — and George W. Bush withdrew the U.S. four years later — the Democrats and Republicans started to split, partisan views on climate change growing into a chasm after President Obama was elected and the Tea Party revolted.

Now, climate change is "more politically polarizing than abortion," Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, tells AP. "It's more politically polarizing than gay marriage." Citing surveys by Yale and George Mason University, Leiserowitz has some numbers: 17 percent (and growing) of Americans are alarmed by climate change and want action now, 28 percent are concerned and believe it is man-made but don't think the threat is imminent, 27 percent are cautious but on the fence, 11 percent are skeptical, 10 percent are vocally dismissive of the science and its conclusions, and the last 7 percent aren't paying attention.

There are differing theories about why the issue is so polarizing — Northeastern University's Matthew Nisbet says that because climate change requires collective global action, "for conservatives that's especially difficult to accept"; Yale's Dan Kahan ties it to America's growing political Balkanization, noting that if you ask Americans, "they know that scientists say we're screwed" but for many that's "not what activates them"; and Georgia Tech atmospheric scientist Judy Curry, a climate change skeptic, finds fault in the scientific community, arguing, "This polarization comes down to being intolerant on disagreement."

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Finally, Stanford University's Jon Krosnick argues that most Americans actually agree, noting surveys showing that 90 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of independents, and 70 percent of Republicans concede that the world is getting hotter because of human activity, even if only half of Republicans think this will be a serious problem for the U.S. This nuance in the polling becomes more understandable when you listen to actual people, as AP does in the video below. You can read more at AP. Peter Weber

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.