Future Tense

Thirty Years Warmer

In 1988, James Hansen warned the nation about climate change. Decades later, is American public opinion finally catching up?

James Hansen collaged in front of the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina.
James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, testifies before Congress in 1989. Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Dennis Cook/AP Images and Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Jeff Atkins first heard about global warming in 1988 from a news broadcast that aired on his family’s television in rural North Carolina, where his grandfather managed a small tobacco farm and worked as a carpenter. He was just 7 years old but holds a distinct memory of the time when he, along with many other Americans, became aware of a stark and enormous idea: that humans were causing a planetwide increase in temperatures and that, if nobody corrected the problem, this could trigger disastrous changes to the Earth’s climate for centuries to come.

That summer, the news filled with dire reports based on the testimony of NASA climate scientist James Hansen and the startling research findings he had just delivered to the U.S. Senate:

Number one, the earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time in the history of instrumental measurements. Number two, the global warming is already large enough that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship to the greenhouse effect. And number three, our computer climate simulations indicate that the greenhouse effect is large enough to begin to affect the probability of extreme events such as summer heat waves. … It is changing our climate now.

Even before Hansen’s testimony, the scientific community had been worried about “the greenhouse effect,” then a common term to describe how increases in the concentration of carbon dioxide could make the atmosphere warmer, similar to the way that the glass panes of a greenhouse will trap the heat of sunlight. Scientists had understood the potential for this phenomenon to cause global warming for nearly a century. But there was little solid evidence until the 1950s, when researcher Charles David Keeling began recording a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. By the 1960s, such findings began to worry some in the scientific community. And on June 23, 1988, as the temperature outside rose to nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit in Washington, Hansen made the most emphatic and widely publicized case for alarm yet. In the literal heat of the moment, the media and the public took notice. The rest of the summer offered up some of the worst heat waves then on record. Drought conditions parched 40 states. Major news outlets around the country began running stories about the threat of a warming planet, reaching people like Atkins and his family.

“It stuck with me,” Atkins, now an ecosystem ecologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, told me. “Even as a kid, I was like, ‘We’ve got to fix this heat thing.’ ”

But most Americans haven’t been as steadfastly concerned about the problem.

This summer marks 30 years since Hansen’s famous warning. Since then, we’ve been cautioned about the threats of climate change countless times and heard overwhelming evidence that it’s caused by humans. In these three decades, according to a recent report by the Associated Press, average temperatures in the United States have risen by 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Ski season has become less reliably snowy, and summer heat waves more common. We’ve witnessed multiple megastorms, like hurricanes Sandy, Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Wildfires, especially in the Western U.S., are routinely larger and more violent than in the past.

Some of us have grown up with an acute awareness of these changes and held hope that the nation’s gridlock over the issue might finally be broken as a younger, more enlightened cohort came of age. Yet, according to some of the nation’s leading experts on the subject, there is no distinct “climate generation.” But there is some evidence that we may be closer to a tipping point in the number of Americans that see climate change as a threat than at any previous point in the past three decades. To understand why, it’s worth revisiting the peculiar political dynamics that have skewed this issue over the past 30 years.

Some traditional thinking has held that a society’s sentiments about any particular issue evolve slowly, but reliably, toward more rational and ethical views. For example, the late pollster and social scientist Daniel Yankelovich posited that public opinion moves through seven stages, “from incoherent globs of opinion toward fully integrated, thoughtful, and considered public judgment,” as he wrote in Fortune magazine in 1992. In his model, a moment like the Hansen testimony might lead us into the first stage: “dawning awareness” of the issue. The public would then reach for solutions but, when it became clear these might involve difficult trade-offs, would resist change in the phase Yankelovich dubbed “wishful thinking.” From here, however, public opinion would mature into realism: weighing choices, taking a stand, making responsible moral judgments.

But many Americans’ perspectives on climate change stalled long before ever reaching such useful endpoints. Instead, their views got tangled in the country’s slide into a deeply divided, politically gridlocked, so-called post-truth society. Because most people can’t make their own direct observations of atmospheric chemistry, they’ve relied on scientists, the media, and political leaders for information on global warming. But except for an occasional flurry of interest, like the one generated by Hansen’s testimony, the media haven’t given the issue much attention, and scientists rarely have access to a loud enough bullhorn to substantially influence public opinion. “In that context, people tend to look to … their political leaders to tell them, ‘Is this a serious threat or not?,’ ” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. When political leaders took sides on global warming, many of their supporters followed.

Around the time of Hansen’s testimony, the U.S. was far less divided along partisan lines, and the issue didn’t immediately become strictly red or blue. In August 1988, for example, then-candidate George H.W. Bush declared in a campaign speech, “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the ‘greenhouse effect’ are forgetting about the ‘White House effect’; as president, I intend to do something about it.” (However, it’s worth noting his actual accomplishments on the issue were meager.)

Then, over the years, some of America’s leaders modified their positions and their messaging as global warming became the subject of an aggressive disinformation campaign. For instance, when the second President Bush was campaigning before his first term, Republican strategist Frank Luntz issued a then-secret, now-infamous memo advising George W. and his party to change their tone on environmental issues. This included instructions to dispute the certainty of the science behind climate change. Facts, he wrote in the memo, were “beside the point. Facts only become relevant when the public is receptive and willing to listen to them [emphasis from original].” He went on, “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly.” Many Republican politicians, and subsequently their constituents, began to repeat talking points about doubt. Science denial took on a partisan life of its own, too, as companies like Exxon Mobil ran ads and funded other activities designed to spread doubts about the risks of climate change (despite producing secret internal research that acknowledged human-caused global warming was real). The Citizens United decision further entrenched the divide, paving the way for advocacy organizations like the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity to pour unlimited amounts of money into advertising and other drives aimed at blocking meaningful action on the issue.

From the late 1990s onward, polls show that the views of conservatives and liberals diverged dramatically. In a 1997 Gallup poll, slightly more Republicans (47 percent) than Democrats (46 percent) said they thought global warming was already occurring. By 2008, at a high point in public concern about the issue, the percentage of Democrats who agreed with that idea had risen to 76 percent, but only 41 percent of Republicans concurred. Since then, conservatives have consistently harbored more doubts about the issue than those on the left. That partisan divide has stalled and defeated efforts to pass federal policies reining in carbon emissions. Global emissions have continued to rise, and the world lost valuable time to curb rising temperatures as American citizens stumbled through a morass of confusion and misinformation.

But public opinion on this issue is often more complex than we imagine. Even though, as Yale’s Leiserowitz tells me, climate change is more politically polarizing than abortion—with those on the left and right conforming to predictable patterns—opinions on the subject still fall along a kind of continuum, rather than adhering to two extremes. “What we realized very early is that Americans don’t have a single viewpoint on climate change,” said Leiserowitz. “People divide them into just believers and deniers, but that’s done real violence to the truth.”

Starting in 2008, inspired partly by Yankelovich’s ideas, Leiserowitz and a team of researchers at Yale and George Mason University began a more complex analysis of public opinion in which they clustered climate change views into six segments (dubbed “six Americas”),  each representing a particular degree of engagement with the issue. In the model he and his colleagues developed, there are the “dismissive,” who actively deny the existence of global warming, and the “doubtful”—both audiences that tend to lean to the right. There are also the “disengaged,” who have given little thought to the issue, and the “cautious,” who are either uncertain about it or think it’s a distant threat. Then come the “concerned,” worried but not engaged, and finally, the “alarmed,” who feel the issue is of utmost importance. Understanding these audiences, Leiserowitz says, makes it possible to devise communications strategies that can speak to the cultural and political values that influence each.

Public opinion on global warming also defies other kinds of expectations. For instance, it’d be nice to think that those of us who came of age since the Hansen moment form a new, enlightened contingent that may soon transform the public opinion landscape. “I feel like it’s just something that my generation has just grown up aware of, just knowing that it’s happening,” said Atkins, now age 37. (Like Atkins, I also learned about climate change as a kid: in my case, via an especially sophisticated science teacher.) But while some polls have found a correlation between age and climate change concern (one recent Pew Research poll, for example, found young Republicans appear to be less doubtful of climate science than their elders), the idea that a legion of youth will rise up and save us is likely just a comforting myth progressives and environmentalists tell themselves. None of the experts I spoke with at Pew Research, Yale, and the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University could find clear evidence of a well-defined climate change generation. “The common wisdom is that young people care about climate change and older people don’t,” said Leiserowitz. “We find no evidence of that, and we have looked and we have looked.” For instance, a 2010 study of the issue, produced by Leiserowitz and collaborators at George Mason and American University, showed that, contrary to popular belief, Americans age 18 to 34 were less worried about and, in some ways, less engaged with the issue than those in older age groups.

In part, this is probably because schools haven’t been effectively teaching climate change to students. In a survey published in a 2016 issue of Science, most teachers reported spending just one or two hours on the subject over the course of a school year. “It’s clearly not enough time to really provide students with a good scientific understanding,” Eric Plutzer, the lead author of the paper and a professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University, told the New York Times. What’s more, the time they do devote to the subject can be fraught with the same misinformation and confusion that color the issue outside the classroom. Just 54 percent of teachers in the survey said they emphasized that climate change is human-caused (in contrast, nearly a third told their pupils it had “natural causes”). Many teachers didn’t grasp the issue well themselves, either. Only 30 percent of middle school and 45 percent of high school teachers correctly answered a multiple-choice question about the extent of scientific consensus on the issue. (The correct answer was 81 to 100 percent. In fact, 97 percent of climate scientists agree that global warming is both happening and human-caused.)

There is one noticeable and important new development in the way Americans now see global warming, however. The proportion of the public that the Yale and George Mason team classifies as “alarmed” appears to be at an all-time high. (The “alarmed” are also the most likely to push for policy change or even march in the streets.) In an analysis based on a survey from March, the researchers found that more than 1 in 5 respondents now fall into the “alarmed” category, which would translate to some 50 million Americans. The group has also more than doubled in size since early 2010, when the ranks of the “alarmed” stood at just 10 percent.

There are multiple reasons for the surge in public concern. One, it’s simply getting harder to ignore the frequency and ferocity of climate-related disasters now striking U.S. soil. Also, the number and diversity of public figures and organizations speaking out about the issue have grown. In recent years, this roster has been updated to include, among others the Pope, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the rapper Eminem, the National Hockey League, the NAACP, and numerous major corporations like Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, Moody’s, and yes, even Facebook. It’s also imperative for the environmental movement, long dominated by white leaders and constituents, to diversify if it wants to remain relevant, let alone become a more powerful force in American society. For instance, Yale’s latest report on this subject suggests Latinos in the U.S. are more worried about, and more engaged with, issues surrounding climate change than their non-Latino counterparts.

Conservatives’ worries about climate change seem to be on the rise now, too. (Notably, their acceptance of global warming—and its human causes—dipped during the Trump candidacy, says Leiserowitz, but began rebounding more recently.) This shift suggests that the climate change divide is neither permanent nor impenetrable. “The polarization that we currently have on climate change is not hard-wired into the human brain,” said John Cook, a professor at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication. “It was essentially socially engineered to become that way.”

Moreover, the ranks of the “alarmed” and “concerned” are becoming large enough that those segments could, in theory, muster some collective clout. Research on group dynamics, including a recent study published in Science, observes that when the share of people who believe in or adopt an idea reaches a critical mass of just 25 percent, they are often able to overturn the views of the majority. But this kind of transformation isn’t inevitable. Because some Americans who care about climate change also feel helpless to solve the problem, they may not be politically engaged with the issue in a way that could influence the status quo.

Thirty years on, we may need fresh inspiration if the American public is ever going to embrace more responsible action on climate change. There are high hurdles to overcome, including the splintering of the media landscape, the rapid spread of online misinformation, and the ascendancy of political leaders (including the president) who deny the science of global warming. Following in Hansen’s footsteps, the next generation of scientists— especially those whose research points to new solutions—could continue to help lift the fog around this issue and galvanize more people to take action. Despite the seemingly anti-science political climate, Americans still consider scientists to be one of their most trusted sources of information (second only to members of the military). Yet, both by choice and by default, people hear little about the workings of the scientific community. And too often, messages about climate change offer more doom than hope.

After Atkins’ oldest son was born in 2007—nearly 20 years after he first heard about global warming as a boy in North Carolina—he left his job as a mental health worker and dedicated his career to studying how ecosystems in the Southeast would respond to climate change. Two years ago, he finished a Ph.D. in environmental sciences from the University of Virginia. Last month, he wrote a blog post on the scientific website PLOS called “Carbon Dioxide: An Autobiography.” In it, he observed that carbon dioxide concentrations have risen by 60 parts per million in his lifetime and that the 20 warmest years on record have happened since 1995, when Atkins was a teenager. When he travels around rural Virginia collecting data on stream chemistry, he sometimes meets people who ask about climate change, at least indirectly, in a conversation about fish or water. He tries to describe the tangible impacts: what’s happening to forests and rivers in the region as the heat rises. “I don’t think alarmism really is the way to communicate this,” he said. “Finding mutual common ground is always better.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.