Yale opinion maps shift the climate change narrative

YPCCC climate change public opinion

Yale opinion maps shift the climate change narrative

By Stephanie Sides

We often make assumptions about what other people think. For example, the climate change narrative commonly has it that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe in the reality of climate change and the need to address it. Another common view is that certain regions of the U.S. believe more or less in the phenomenon. To date this understanding of partisanship has been based on national and, in some cases, state opinion polls. But those polls end up smoothing over some very interesting nuances, which recent research from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication revealed.

Surprising variation at the district level

As it turns out, there’s substantial heterogeneity of opinion on climate change within both parties. Researchers with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, through computer modeling, have achieved a more discrete level in understanding these fault lines, down to the congressional district.

This work was authored by Matto Mildenberger, Jennifer R. Marlon, Peter D. Howe, and Anthony Leiserowitz in “The spatial distribution of U.S. Republican and Democratic climate opinions at state and local scales” in Climatic Change Letters. This group also published an accompanying set of interactive maps for use by Congress and other policymakers, the public, and other researchers. The paper and maps show the distribution of Democratic and Republican opinions on climate change across all states and congressional districts. You can use the maps to ask various questions and filter the resulting data by nation, state, or congressional district and by Democrats or Republicans.

Not surprisingly, nationwide 82% of Democrats vs. 50% of Republicans believe global change is happening. More unexpectedly, the research team found geographic variation in climate opinions among Republicans across states and districts. For example, a larger fraction of Republicans believes in climate change in general than believes that it is caused by human activity, but they note that one quarter of Republicans in most states think it is both real and human-caused. They also found that, while Democrats typically think human activity is responsible for climate change, the strength of their beliefs varies across state and local scales, with more concern on the west coast and upper New England.

Tony Sirna is CCL’s Data and Strategy Coordinator who produces polling data sheets for CCL volunteers. I asked him about the significance of this research. “The more interesting data relates to the Republicans,” said Sirna. While their average concern nationally is much lower than for the Democrats, there are districts with ratings as high as 60% of concerned Republicans on the west coast, southern Texas, Florida, and all the way up the eastern seaboard through New England. If you look at opinions on whether to regulate CO2 as a pollutant, except for Wyoming (a coal-invested state) and portions of northern and eastern Texas (oil), the percentages mostly range from a low of 50% to a surprising high of 75%. “Republicans east of the Mississippi,” said Sirna, “are more supportive of CO2 regulation.”

How to use this information

Sirna suggested various ways these mapping tools might be used. Share the information with your member of Congress if you think it will help build your relationship, showing the degree of support in your district from members of the congressperson’s party. Use it in outreach and to override common misperceptions, showing that Republicans in some districts may be more supportive than commonly thought; in CCL endorsement campaigns (with CEOs, town councils, etc.); and in op-eds or letters to the editor. Share it with members of the media to encourage them to write articles using local data for their publications or outlets. For example, this information could be used to identify the most supportive districts such as in a state organizing effort to help influence the more resistant.

Sirna said, “These maps can be used to help change the narrative where it’s become ‘stuck,’ so we can reopen the dialogue.”

Stephanie Sides
Stephanie Sides is a freelance writer who works primarily with academics in science, medicine, and engineering.
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