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Americans Believe 2015 Was Record-Warm, but Split on Why

Americans Believe 2015 Was Record-Warm, but Split on Why

by Riley E. Dunlap
Chart: data points are described in article

Story Highlights

  • 69% of Americans believe reports of record-high temperatures
  • Republicans are least likely to believe the reports
  • 49% think reason for record warmth is human-caused climate change

PRINCETON, N.J. -- U.S. government scientists recently reported that 2015 was the Earth's warmest year since reliable record keeping began. Majorities of U.S. adults surveyed in Gallup's annual Environment poll are aware of this finding and believe it is accurate, but they are almost evenly divided on whether the record-high temperatures are attributable mainly to human-caused climate change (49%) or natural variability (46%).

U.S. Views on Record-Warm 2015
Yes% No% No opinion%
Heard reports that 2015 was Earth's warmest year on record 63 37 *
Believe reports are accurate 69 27 4
* Less than 0.5%
Gallup, March 2-6, 2016

U.S. Views on Main Cause of Record 2015 Temperatures
Main cause%
Human-caused climate change 49
Natural changes in the Earth's temperatures 46
Other/No opinion 5
Gallup, March 2-6, 2016

Majority of Americans Aware of Reports of Record Temperatures for 2015

When asked if they had heard that scientists recently reported that 2015 was the Earth's warmest year on record, 63% of U.S. adults said they had. This awareness varies somewhat among key demographic sectors -- particularly education, age and race.

College graduates are substantially more likely than those with no college to have heard of the reports, 76% vs. 53%. A large gap is also evident by age: 70% of those aged 55 and older are familiar with the reports, compared with 53% of 18- to 34-year-olds. Whites (68%) are more likely than nonwhites (52%) to have heard. Partisan differences are insignificant, with 66% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans hearing about the reports of record temperatures in 2015.

U.S. Public's Awareness of 2015 Record Warmth
As you may know, scientists recently reported that 2015 was the Earth's warmest year on record. Had you heard about these reports before now, or not?
Yes, had heard% No, had not heard%
U.S. adults 63 37
18 to 34 53 47
35 to 54 63 37
55+ 70 29
White 68 32
Nonwhite 52 47
College graduate 76 24
Some college 62 38
No college 53 46
Republican 64 36
Independent 62 37
Democrat 66 34
Gallup, March 2-6, 2016

Majority Also Believe the Reports Are Accurate

All adults were next asked whether they believe the reports are accurate. A somewhat larger majority than had heard of the reports say they are accurate, 69%, while 27% say they are not. Compared with the question about awareness of the reports, the patterns by subgroup change substantially on the question of their accuracy.

While Republicans and Democrats are similarly aware of the reports about 2015's record warmth, there are striking partisan differences in terms of belief in the reports' accuracy: 84% of Democrats believe them, compared with 52% of Republicans.

Young adults (aged 18 to 34) are more likely to believe the reports than their older (55 and older) counterparts, 78% vs. 65%. There is a modest difference between whites (67%) and nonwhites (74%) in the perceived accuracy of the reports. College graduates are also modestly more likely to believe the reports than those with no college, 75% vs. 67%.

U.S. Public's Views on Accuracy of 2015 Climate Report
Just your best guess, do you generally believe these reports are accurate or not accurate?
Accurate% Not accurate% No opinion%
U.S. adults 69 27 4
18 to 34 78 20 2
35 to 54 68 29 4
55+ 65 31 4
White 67 29 3
Nonwhite 74 23 3
College graduate 75 22 2
Some college 66 29 5
No college 67 29 3
Republican 52 45 3
Independent 70 26 4
Democrat 84 12 3
Heard of 2015 climate reports 76 23 1
Had not heard of reports 58 35 7
Gallup, March 2-6, 2016

Americans Split on Primary Cause of Record Warmth

A third question in the March 2-6 poll asked adults if, assuming the reports are true, they think the record 2015 global temperatures are mainly attributable to human-caused climate change or to natural changes in the Earth's temperatures. Here, the U.S. public is sharply divided. Forty-nine percent attribute the record temperatures to human-caused climate change, while 46% attribute them to natural changes.

Not surprisingly, given the degree to which climate change has become a highly polarized political issue, there is a chasm between Republicans and Democrats on the source of 2015's record-high global temperatures. While 72% of Democrats attribute the record temperatures to human-caused climate change, only 27% of Republicans do so. This mirrors the continued large partisan gap in views of global warming documented in other items in this year's Environment poll.

Younger adults (those 18 to 34) are also much more likely than older Americans (55 and older) to attribute the record warmth to human-caused climate change, 61% vs. 39%. There are also noticeable differences by education and race: College graduates are more likely than those with no college to choose human causation (56% vs. 42%), and nonwhites are more likely than whites to do so (58% vs. 46%).

Attribute Record 2015 Warmth to Human-Caused Climate Change or Natural Changes?
Assuming these reports are accurate, do you think the record temperatures in 2015 were mainly due to -- [human-caused climate change (or to) natural changes in the Earth's temperatures]?
Climate change% Natural changes% Reports are not accurate (vol.)% No opinion%
U.S. adults 49 46 2 3
18 to 34 61 38 1 *
35 to 54 52 45 2 1
55+ 39 54 2 5
White 46 51 2 2
Nonwhite 58 37 2 4
College graduate 56 40 1 3
Some college 52 44 2 2
No college 42 53 2 3
Republican 27 72 1 1
Independent 47 48 3 2
Democrat 72 24 1 2
Heard of 2015 climate reports 53 43 2 2
Had not heard of reports 43 52 2 4
Reports are accurate 62 35 1 2
Reports are not accurate 20 74 3 3
(vol.) = Volunteered response; * Less than 0.5%
Gallup, March 2-6, 2016

As Gallup reported previously, the same poll found 63% of Americans saying that temperatures where they live have been warmer than usual this winter and 10% saying they were colder than usual. About half of each group -- or 38% of all Americans -- attribute the unusual winter weather to climate change caused by human activity. That is somewhat less than the percentage attributing last year's record warmth at the global level to human-caused climate change.

Bottom Line

A strong majority of Americans, including 52% of Republicans, accept that 2015 was a record-setting warm year. However, they are sharply divided, especially on the basis of political affiliation, on the sources of the record temperatures. This is yet another indication of the extreme degree of partisan polarization surrounding climate change that has evolved in the U.S. over the past decade.

Riley E. Dunlap is Gallup Scholar for the Environment and Regents Professor of Sociology at Oklahoma State University.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted March 2-6, 2016, with a random sample of 1,019 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 60% cellphone respondents and 40% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

View complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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