This week the UN General Assembly convenes in New York City to discuss challenges facing the global community—chief among them, climate change and global warming. In his opening address on Tuesday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on world leaders to stop pilfering their country’s natural resources, while also calling climate change “the defining challenge of our time.” Talk of climate change is “heating up,” so as part of a larger study on social and political issues, Barna asked American adults their view on the causes of, and solutions to, climate change and global warming.
What Americans Believe About Climate Change
Although there is still debate over human-caused—or anthropogenic—climate change, skeptics are in the minority. When asked whether humans caused climate change and / or global warming, seven in 10 adults say either yes, absolutely (42%), or yes, possibly (29%). Skeptics make up around one-fifth of all Americans, answering either no, probably not (10%), or no, definitely not (11%). Another one in 11 are not sure (9%).
Younger generations have come of age during a time of relative scientific consensus on climate change caused by human activities, so it comes as little surprise that, compared to older generations, they are less likely to be skeptical of human-caused climate change. Although most adults in each generational group believe humans caused climate change and / or global warming, more Millennials than Elders are absolutely sure. Close to half of all Millennials (46%) believe climate change is absolutely caused by human activity, compared to a gradually decreasing scale of certainty among Gen-Xers (43%), Boomers (39%) and, finally, one-third of Elders (35%).
Another key indicator of certainty when it comes to human-caused climate change relates to education. Those most certain of human-caused climate change and global warming are those with a college degree (50%). Certainty decreases with one’s level of education: Four in 10 adults with some college education (41%), and about one-third with high school or less (36%), say humans absolutely caused climate change and global warming.
Talk of caring for God’s creation first appeared on the agenda of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1970, and establishment of the Evangelical Environmental Network in the 1990s continued a shift in evangelical consciousness toward creation care. The group also organized the Evangelical Climate Initiative, which in 2006 released a statement signed by a number of influential evangelical leaders that makes a moral argument for climate action. Although the creation care movement continues to grow among evangelicals and the broader Christian community in America, it remains a relatively low priority overall. For example, fewer than one in five evangelicals (19%) believe humans absolutely caused climate change and / or global warming. To compare, this is less than half the national average (42%). More than half of those who claim no faith (atheists, agnostics, etc., 53%) are absolutely certain of human-caused climate change and global warming, almost three times the number of evangelicals. In contrast to the smaller evangelical community, however, more than four in 10 practicing Christians (43%) are certain of human-caused climate change. The practicing Christian segment is more broadly representative of an array of denominational and political leanings, while evangelicals tend to be more theologically and politically conservative—a difference that may be partly responsible for the two groups’ diverging views.
Ideology also plays a major role, with the two poles of the political spectrum representing contrary views on the role of human activities when it comes to climate change. The partisan divide is clear: Almost four times as many liberals (69%) as conservatives (20%) are certain of human-caused climate change.
No Consensus on the Best Way to Fight Climate Change
A plurality of U.S. adults (37%) agree that establishing renewable energy sources is the best way to fight climate change. From there, however, consensus about limiting climate change is harder to find. The next most popular answer is “not sure” (23%), which reveals the complexity and uncertainty that surround initiatives to fight climate change and global warming. Following these two responses is the continual development of technological advancement (14%) and recycling / composting (12%). A small but not insignificant number of adults say “something else” (7%), followed by smaller minorities who advocate for the expansion of public transportation infrastructure (3%), implementing a carbon tax (2%) and becoming a vegetarian (1%).
Looking at the ways to fight climate change that are most popular among U.S. adults, which groups are most and least likely to choose each of the options? Beginning with establishing renewable energy sources, the groups most likely to believe this is the best option to fight climate change are liberals (49%), those who claim no faith (45%), Millennials (43%) and those who have graduated college (43%). Among those least likely to think this is the best option are practicing Christians (31%), evangelicals (29%), black Americans (27%) and conservatives (25%).
Looking at those who are unsure about the best solutions to fight climate change, the groups most likely to say so are black adults (40%), those who have completed high school or less (32%), Boomers (26%) and all non-white Americans (26%). Among those least likely to be unsure are those who earn $100K+ (14%), college graduates (13%), liberals (13%) and Asian Americans (12%).
The groups most likely to believe the most effective way to fight climate change is the continual development of technological advancement are Boomers (23%), college graduates (21%), those who earn $100K+ (21%) and conservatives (21%). Among those least likely to say this is effective are evangelicals (11%), those who claim no faith (11%), very active church attenders (9%) and Millennials (6%).
The groups most likely to believe recycling and composting is the most effective way to fight climate change are practicing Christians (18%), Millennials (17%), semi-active church attenders (17%) and Gen-Xers (16%). Among those least likely to say so are Elders (10%), those who live in the South (10%), college graduates (9%) and Boomers (5%).
Finally, there are some correlations between certainty about human-caused climate change and views on the best way to fight it. Those who believe humans are either absolutely or possibly causing climate change tend to choose establishing renewable energy sources as their top choice for fighting the problem. Those who believe humans are probably not causing climate change tend to choose “not sure” as their top choice, and those who believe humans are definitely not causing climate change are most likely to choose “something else.”
What the Research Means
“The causes of, and responses to, climate change and global warming have always been polarizing issues,” says Cory Maxwell-Coghlan, senior writer at Barna Group and lead analyst on the study. “Even though most Americans believe climate change and global warming are due to the effects of human activities, it’s clear that deep divides—generationally, politically and theologically—still exist. How to tackle the issues at hand, whatever one’s beliefs about the causes, are equally dispersed across the board, minus a shared desire to establish renewable energy sources. Uncertainty about the best path forward, particularly among skeptics of human-caused climate change, exemplifies the complexity and ambiguity that plague the issue.
“But one might wonder whether we are missing the forest for the trees,” continues Maxwell-Coghlan. “Faith leaders especially must be wary of hammering the stake deeper into the chasm separating those on either side of the issue. They must be willing to occupy that ‘messy middle,’ urging their divided congregations to look beyond their seemingly irreconcilable differences to seek common ground over a shared concern for God’s creation. Whether human-caused or not, seeking energy independence, preserving rainforests, creating more livable cities, and fighting for clean water and air are all good reasons to build coalitions across political and religious divides. Preserving God’s world for future generations is surely something we can agree on, especially since ‘no one knows the day or the hour’ of Christ’s return (see Mark 13).
“Psalm 24:1 explains, ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.’ We have been given stewardship, not ownership, of the earth—which belongs to God. References to ‘dominion’ and ‘subdue’ in Genesis 1 denote not license but responsibility to make use of and to care for creation. Another way to find common ground and build alliances is through service. Practically, leaders and pastors could create ministries and organize service projects. They can celebrate creation together by recycling as a church, using environmentally friendly products, encouraging car pooling to Sunday services, organizing cleanup projects or adopting a section of the highway. These not only foster community, but a shared sense of responsibility for creation care.”
About the Research
The study on which these findings are based was conducted via online survey from April 7 to April 14, 2016. A total of 1,097 interviews were conducted. The sample error is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points at 95-percent confidence level. The completion rate was 85%.
No faith: identify as agnostic or atheist, or as having no faith
Evangelicals: Have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and believe that, when they die, they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, plus seven other conditions. These conditions include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”
Millennials: Born between 1984 and 2002
Gen-Xers: Born between 1965 and 1983
Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964
Elders: Born between 1945 or earlier
Liberal: identify as mostly liberal when it comes to political issues.
Conservative: identify as mostly conservative when it comes to political issues.
About the Barna Group
The Barna Group is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2016.