New PRRI Climate Survey Report Offers Insights into Public Attitudes

PRRI SurveyOn Friday, November 21st, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), in partnership with the American Academy of Religion, released the results of its comprehensive 3,000-person survey that provides a treasure trove of information for those looking to inspire and engage others on climate change.
Believers, Sympathizers, and Skeptics: Why Americans are Conflicted about Climate Change, Environmental Policy, and Science” explores climate attitudes of both the general public and religious Americans. While we encourage anyone interested to check out the full report, below is a summary of some of its key findings related to the general public. A separate blog will explore faith findings.
Climate Change is a Problem, But…
PRRI’s new report contains both good news and bad news for those concerned about climate change. It reveals that a majority of Americans think climate change is happening with 59% of Americans considering it a “crisis” or a “major problem,” compared to 39% who consider it a “minor problem” or “not a problem.”
However, these numbers mask some important divisions. One is on the causes of climate change. Only 46% of those surveyed believed that humans play a role in climate, as opposed to the 25% of those who attributed it to “natural causes” or the 26% who do not believe warming is occurring at all.
In addition, climate change is not a priority for the bulk of the American public, testing last among a list of other issues such as job creation. Climate was not even the most important environmental concern for respondents, who ranked “air, water, and soil pollution” above it.
As expected, political affiliation remains the biggest predictor of climate attitudes, with liberals expressing greater concern and conservatives greater skepticism. Some minority groups are particularly aware of climate change. For instance, Hispanics/Latino populations are much more concerned about climate change than the general public (71% vs. 50%, respectively).
Impacts for Others, Not for Me
Respondents were also asked questions about the impacts of climate change. The majority (54%) of Americans believe that climate change will harm people in developing countries “a great deal.” However, these numbers drop the closer climate gets to homes. Only 33% felt that the U.S. would be harmed a great deal by climate change and even fewer (24%) thought climate change would harm them a great deal personally.
This perception of climate as not personally relevant plays an important role in the minds of climate “skeptics,” of whom 33% attribute their skepticism to their observations that the “weather has not changed/still cold.”
Divided on Climate, United on Solutions
There is cause for hope though, especially when it comes to climate solutions. 69% of Americans believe the government needs to do more to address climate change. Along those lines, 64% support stricter limits on vehicle emissions even if it raises costs, 57% favor stricter limits on carbon dioxide emissions even if they raise costs, and 64% of Americans favor increases in federal funding for research on renewables even if they raise taxes.
What Motivates Us?
The survey examined potential rationales for climate action, finding messages that cut across almost all demographics. 89% thought it was important to protect the environment for the sake of future generations, 88% believed it was important to respect and take care of the earth, and 85% found preventing human suffering and harm compelling. This consensus declines, however, when the rationale shifts to protecting other species (71%).
What’s in a Name? Climate Change vs. Global Warming
“Climate change” outperformed “global warming” in the report. For instance, 43% of Americans felt that “climate change is getting more attention than it deserves” vs. 49% who agreed that “global warming” is getting too much attention. For self-identified Tea Partiers, 75% thought “global warming” was getting too much attention, versus 64% for “climate change.”
So What?
The findings of PRRI’s “Believers, Sympathizers, and Skeptics” affirm many of the conclusions found within ecoAmerica’s 2014 American Climate Values Report. While much can be written regarding the implications of this and other reports, perhaps the important conclusions are:
1. Connect with existing values – People care deeply about their family and their responsibility toward one another. Each of these represents powerful avenues for inspiring climate action.
2. Put a human face on climate – When you talk about climate, lead with human impacts and human involvement in solutions.
3. Make it personal – Help people to see how climate change is impacting their backyards, not just the globe in general.
4. Focus on solutions – Though Americans remain divided on climate and its causes, there is a surprising amount of support for climate solutions. By focusing on them, you will inspire hope rather than despair and entrenchment.
5. New messages and messengers needed – Climate has become bound to our political identities. By providing people new lenses with which to look at the issue, such as their faith, we start to break down political barriers and open the door to greater opportunities.
For more handy climate communications tips, check out ecoAmerica’s 13 Steps and Guiding Principles for Communicating on Climate.

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