Visualizing Climate Change: Are Opinion Maps Telling the Full Story?

Collecting public opinion on global warming and climate change is instrumental in influencing decision-making and policy for the reduction and mitigation of future impacts. Yet, the way public opinion is collected differs across scale, from the national to the local level.

National-level statistics, which are often more easily attainable and cost-effective, can gloss over important differences in opinion at smaller scales such as counties and metropolitan areas. In an effort to combat these inconsistencies, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) developed a model that breaks down national public opinion to smaller scales of measurement, allowing for rich data visualization that speaks to the diversity of Americans’ beliefs, attitudes and policy support.

Each year, the YPCCC produces public opinion maps based on data collected from the Climate Change in the American Mind Survey. Within the survey, questions are divided into four broad categories: 1) beliefs; 2) risk perceptions; 3) policy support; and 4) behaviors. An example question asks, “What do you think? Do you think global warming is happening?” In the spring 2020 iteration of opinion maps, an estimated 72% of adults nationally believe that global warming is happening. However, this percentage greatly differs across the state- and county-level. In comparison to this national area, an estimated 59% of adults in West Virginia believe that global warming is happening. West Virginia, in fact, has the lowest estimated percentage of global warming belief in all of Yale’s statewide data, prompting a closer evaluation of this stark divide from national opinion.

Click on map to enlarge. Map Reference: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. (2020). Estimated % of adults who think global warming is happening (72%). Retrieved from: https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/

This divide may be symptomatic of rampant misinformation on climate change. Despite the global scientific consensus that global warming is happening, there is a disconnect between scientists and the general public as media outlets divide the American public on their perceptions and beliefs. Conspiracy and right-wing ideologies often correlate to widespread skepticism surrounding climate science, as the United States is one of the few nations with such divided perceptions of climate change. Along with political ideologies, there are also racial and gender differences in the perception of climate change in the United States, as white, conservative males are more likely than other adult demographic to deny the reality and science of the climate crisis.

Identity markers such as socioeconomic class, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and age, among others, have the potential to influence perceptions and beliefs. In tandem, climate change is expected to create differing vulnerability and insecurity across society with already marginalized populations feeling imminent effects. Yet, the YPCCC survey does not address identity and its influence on perceptions and beliefs. Statistics garnered from these opinion maps act to erase the perceptions and beliefs of racially and socially marginalized individuals since identity factors are excluded. If included, these factors have the potential to create important, inclusive policymaking about future impacts.

Similarly, the opinion maps only survey adults, leaving the opinions of younger generations, those who arguably will be affected by climate change the most, unaccounted for. As the country’s youngest voters and future leaders, college-aged students in particular can provide a wealth of knowledge on localized impacts of climate change and can aid in crafting holistic and inclusive analyses of policy.

In an effort to address climate opinion map shortcomings, I incorporated questions regarding age, college-standing, educational attainment, ethnicity, gender identity, and sexual orientation into a survey to be distributed to students at West Virginia University. As a part of my Master’s thesis in Geography, the survey stands to provide preliminary data to support my project that attempts to investigate how sexual and place-based identities affect LGBTQ+ undergraduate students’ perceptions and beliefs about climate change in Appalachia. The survey directly incorporates a majority of the questions utilized by the YPCCC and was distributed to approximately 420 undergraduate students at West Virginia University in the spring 2020 semester. Responses were recorded in various introductory-level courses across multiple science-focused disciplines such as forestry, geography, and physics.

Excerpts from the collected survey data directly coincide with the recent data of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. 91% (371 participants) believe that global warming is happening, drastically above the 59% of surveyed adults within the same period across the state of West Virginia. Interestingly, 75% (306 participants) were ‘somewhat worried’ and ‘very worried’ about global warming, and 78% (317 participants) thought that they would be personally harmed by global warming in some capacity. Again, students surveyed were well-above the statewide average of adults worried about global warming (49%) and who thought they would be personally affected (30%).

Though these survey questions shed light on college-aged, young adults’ perceptions and beliefs and their departure from other adults within the same geographic area, they are limited since they are unable to assess why students answered the way they did. Going a step further, the survey does not address how global warming and climate change perceptions and beliefs might be tied directly to a student’s identity. Demographics of survey participants illustrated in the table demonstrate the overwhelming number of opinions of white, heterosexual men and women, which effectively minimizes the voices of LGBTQ+ and BIPOCs.

 

Table Reference: Rothrock, B. (2020). Survey Respondent Demographics.

Through interviews, I have attempted to illuminate the perceptions and beliefs of identities ‘lost’ in the survey data. Quantitative research, such as surveys and maps, can be coupled with qualitative research, like interviews and focus groups, as a means of revealing new knowledge. With my focus on LGBTQ+ undergraduate students, I hope to dissect opinion in an effort to produce more inclusive climate change policy and to envision research methods outside the norm.

Among the many barriers to meaningful action on the climate crisis, understanding perceptions on climate among our society’s most vulnerable and marginalized, as well those most opposed, is crucial to finally achieving meaningful change.

 

Brandon Rothrock – Rachel Carson Council Fellow

Brandon Rothrock is working on a Master of Arts in Geography and a Graduate Certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies at theWest Virginia University. His RCC project is on climate justice and the LGBTQ+ community. [email protected]il.com


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