American Culture

Study: climate views of U.S. break down into six broad categories

sixamericasLast week, the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communications released their 2009 “Six America’s” study. The study finds that the U.S. population can be broadly broken up into six different categories that the study’s authors name as follows: Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, and Dismissive. Here’s how the Executive Summary describes each of the six groups:

The Alarmed (18%) are fully convinced of the reality and seriousness of climate change and are already taking individual, consumer, and political action to address it. The Concerned (33%) – the largest of the six Americas – are also convinced that global warming is happening and a serious problem, but have not yet engaged the issue personally. Three other Americas – the Cautious (19%), the Disengaged (12%) and the Doubtful (11%) – represent different stages of understanding and acceptance of the problem, and none are actively involved. The final America – the Dismissive (7%) – are very sure it is not happening and are actively involved as opponents of a national effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


The survey made a number of interesting findings:

  • Large majorities of all six groups are skeptical of humanity’s ability to address climate disruption (Figure 13).
  • The Dismissive are as certain that climate disruption isn’t even happening as the Alarmed are certain that climate disruption is happening. (Figure 5).
  • Both the Alarmed and the Dismissive are very confident that they know what’s really going on with climate (Figure 7).
  • Four of the six groups (Alarmed, Concerned, Caution, and Disengaged) all at least “somewhat support” carbon dioxide (CO2) regulations (Figure 19).
  • Only the Dismissive group actually opposes increased fuel efficiency standards, and even then just barely (Figure 20).
  • All six groups at least “somewhat support” rebates for solar power installation and/or fuel efficient vehicles (Figure 21).
  • There is limited support for carbon capitalism, aka cap and trade, across all groups (Figure 22).
  • While the Alarmed and Concerned are largely Democrats, and the Doubtful and Dismissive are largely Republicans, iindependents are split nearly equally across all six groups (Figure 29).
  • All the groups are neutral to trusting of scientists as good sources of information about climate disruption, and all the groups are neutral to distrustful of the media as good sources of information (Figures 35 and 36 respectively).
  • Catholics trend slightly toward being Alarmed, Protestants trend slightly toward being Doubtful, Mormons toward being Dismissive, Jews toward being Alarmed, “other Christians” toward being Dismissive, and all other religious groups (non-religious, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and non-Christians) toward being Alarmed (Table 23).
  • The Dismissive have the highest number of self-identified “evangelical” or “born-again” Christians of any group (Figure 33).
  • The Dismissive listen to the radio the most, get the most information from the Web, read newspapers the least, and watch the least television of all the six groups (Table 27).
  • The Dismissive listen to the least “apolitical” news and have the most politically-biased news consumption of all the gruops. The Concerned (not the Alarmed) are the group that trend opposite of the Dismissive. Furthermore, the Dismissive are the most polarized in their news habits – all of the other five groups consume more varied news (NPR, MSNBC, CNN, and Fox) than the Dismissive, which get their news almost exclusively from a few sources (Fox, for example). The Alarmed consume the widest variety of news sources (Table 28).

There is, however, a potentially significant problem – the demographic information runs contrary to most prior studies I’ve read about. An ABC News poll found that people under 30 overwhelmingly wanted to address climate disruption (80%) – this new study shows that only 28% of the Alarmed and only 22% of the Concerned are under 34, for a combined total of only about 49.1% of everyone under 34. The difference could be partly related to the two different study age ranges, namely “under 30” vs. “18-34,” but a 30% difference is still pretty big.

The problem could also be that the poll is skewed toward older people – people 18-24 are underrepresented by 4%, 25-74 are overrepresented by 3.5 to 7%, and people 75 and up are 1% underrepresented (source: Census Bureau estimates for 2008). It’s not clear from the methodology notes if this skew was corrected or not.

If the study is accurate, however, it points to some opportunities and some problems. The poll suggests that the majority of people will accept some regulation of CO2, but not cap-and-trade. The poll also suggests that increasing vehicle fuel economy and offering rebates for fuel efficient vehicles and solar power are acceptable to a significant majority of Americans. If this is accurate, then these could provide a kernel of public support upon which Congress can build real legislation to address climate disruption and energy security.

UPDATE 4/1/2013: Corrected the link to the actual study since the original link was no longer valid.

5 replies »

  1. All the groups are neutral to trusting of scientists as good sources of information about climate disruption, and all the groups are neutral to distrustful of the media as good sources of information (Figures 35 and 36 respectively).

    If scientists aren’t the best source of information about a scientific subject, who the flaming hell are you supposed to listen to? A guy in a pub? An oracle spirit? Your pet rock? Ninjas?! (If you’re in the Dismissive group the answer is: “Weathermen and economists”.)

    I’d probably fall into the Concerned category. The science suggests being “cautious” at the very least as the most logical response. We may not lose a hundred miles inland of the coasts in the next couple decades, but we’re probably not going to like it if we don’t do *something* within the next 30 or so years.

    My main gripe with the dismissive and doubtful categories is their bastardization of the word “skeptic”. They use it to mean roughly the same thing 9/11 truthers, birthers, and anti-vaccine loons do. Eventually the definition may have to be changed to: skeptic – noun – A person who refuses to accept evidence contrary to their position, no matter how overwhelming. “Those scientists are just liberal shills for Big Green. I’m a skeptic, so I believe what my weatherman, George Will, and Glenn Beck say.”

  2. Brian, what an interesting post. This is the first time I’ve seen religion used as a category for climate issues. I’m stunned at the dismissal of the validity of scientists… and not surprised at all about the results for the consumers of Fox.

    • There’s a massive amount of information in the actual report and I only touched on some of the things that I found most interesting. They have a complete breakdown of each of the six groups that includes religion, ethnicity, education level, media consumption habits, and the level of consumer activism, to name a few. It even broke each group down by where the various groups live – 21% of all Alarmed live in the South Atlantic region, the same region where 21% of Disengaged and 26% of Dismissives live.

      By all means read the actual thing – it’s fascinating. And unlike a lot of polls these days, it looks like they generally did the questions well (randomized order of answers, for example, to remove order biases).

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