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Climate Change: Public Skeptical, Scientists Sure

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Climate Change: Public Skeptical, Scientists Sure


Climate Change: Public Skeptical, Scientists Sure

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And as we've just heard, polls show fewer Americans believe in global warming today than they did five years ago. Yet, paradoxically, scientists are more confident than ever that climate change is real and caused largely by human activities.

NPR's Richard Harris looks at a new poll that explores this disconnect.

RICHARD HARRIS: Something a bit strange is happening with public opinion and climate change. Anthony Leiserowitz at Yale University delved into this in a recent poll. He not only asked citizens what they thought of climate change, he also asked them to estimate how climate scientists feel about global warming.

Mr. ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ (Yale University): And only 13 percent of Americans got the correct answer, which is that, in fact, about 97 percent of American scientists say that climate change is happening, and about a third of Americans just simply say they don't know.

HARRIS: Most Americans are unaware that the National Academy of Sciences -known for its cautious and even-handed reviews of the state of science - is firmly on board with climate change. It has been for years.

Ralph Cicerone is president of the National Academy, and he paraphrases their most recent report on the subject.

Mr. RALPH CICERONE (President, National Academy of Sciences): The consensus statement is that the climate changes that are being observed are certainly real, they seem to be increasing and that humans are mostly likely the cause of all or most of these changes.

HARRIS: And that's not just the view of the U.S. National Academies. There's also a consensus statement from the presidents of science academies from around the world, including the academies of China, the United Kingdom, India, Japan, Russia, France, Brazil and the list goes on.

And Cicerone also points to strong statements about climate change from the leading professional organizations in the United States.

Mr. CICERONE: The American Chemical Society, the American Physical Society has a, I think, a fairly clear statement on climate change. The American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society, and then any other number of other societies - Geological Society of America, quite a few others.

HARRIS: Of course, it's still possible to find a few scientists who reject the consensus. And Cicerone says it is appealing to think that those guys are right when they say we don't have to worry about complicated cap-and-trade policies or otherwise fuss about climate change.

Mr. CICERONE: I think rooting for the underdog, the David against the Goliath, is something that we all do. I think it's particularly American, although it happens everywhere. And, in fact, this is the way scientists work. Scientists don't gain respect and attention and fame, if you will, by going along with the mainstream. And I don't know of many scientists who try to go along with the mainstream. They're trying to go the opposite direction.

HARRIS: And although a few are still finding reasons for doubt, Cicerone says he and most of his colleagues find that the science of climate change is stronger the harder they look. So does this public disbelief mean that Americans are becoming more anti-science?

Anthony Leiserowitz at Yale says that's not what his polls show.

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: Most Americans actually have overwhelming trust in the science and trust in scientists.

HARRIS: But the public is largely unaware of the consensus because it's not what they're hearing on cable TV or reading in blogs.

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: They mostly get exposed to a much more conflicted view, and that's, of course, not by accident.

HARRIS: Leiserowitz is now starting to ask how public opinion changes when people actually know that the National Academy of Sciences and all those other groups consider climate change to be a big concern.

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: So far, the evidence shows that the more people understand that there is this consensus, the more they tend to believe that climate change is happening, the more they understand that humans are a major contributor, and the more worried they are about it.

HARRIS: And he says if you drill down a bit, the American public actually is not split when you ask them if they'd like to see a gradual transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: We find overwhelming bipartisan agreement about that.

HARRIS: And as it happens, that transition is a step toward slowing the pace of global warming.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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