Varying Degrees: Climate Change in the American Mind



Edward Maibach

Director, George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication

A decade ago, a nationwide survey showed that only around twelve percent of Americans were seriously concerned about climate change. Today, public perceptions have changed.

“The alarmed are between a quarter and 30% of the public,” says Edward Maibach. “That makes them the largest single segment of Americans…as their name implies, they’re alarmed about climate change.”

Maibach heads up the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.  He and Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale’s Climate Change Communication program first conducted the survey in 2008 in order to gauge public perceptions of the climate crisis. As Leiserowitz recalls, they very quickly came to understand that Americans don't have a single viewpoint on climate change.

“Too many people then would divide the world up into believers and deniers.  And that's way too simplistic.”

They dubbed their work Global Warming’s Six Americas. As the name suggests, Americans’ perceptions of climate fall on a spectrum, with the alarmed at one extreme. And as their number has grown, those on the other end of the spectrum -the climate doubters -- have decreased by roughly half, from fifteen percent to around seven. What accounts for the shifting balance of awareness?

As Maibach and Leiserowitz found, it all comes down to communication. Americans are not only learning about climate change from scientists and the media – but also from their friends, family and neighbors. 

“Clearly, they are many of them are finding ways to have conversations with people who know the truth,” says Maibach.  “[People] who might not know much of many of the facts, but at least have the correct sense that wow climate change is a real problem.

“Because out there in America across the back fence or on people’s stoop they’re having conversations whereby people are actually asking questions and listening to one another's responses.”

Leiserowitz and Maibach are the dual recipients of the tenth annual Stephen H. Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communications. Established in honor of Stephen H. Schneider, one of the founding fathers of climatology, the $15,000 Schneider Award recognizes a natural or social scientist who has made extraordinary scientific contributions and communicated that knowledge to a broad public in a clear, compelling fashion.

Related Links:

Global Warming’s Six Americas
Yale Climate Connections Podcast
Climate Matters – Jim Gandy
Climate Matters in the Newsroom
White House Fact Sheet: President Biden’s Executive Actions on Climate Change