The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. has more climate skeptics than anywhere else on earth. Blame the GOP.

Participants are seen in silhouette as they look at a world map with climate anomalies during the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, December 8, 2015. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

In most of the world, climate change is settled science.

Not so in the United States. President Trump has called human-made climate change a “hoax perpetuated by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.” Former House speaker Newt Gingrich has suggested that climate change is the “newest excuse to take control of our lives by left-leaning intellectuals.” Conservative broadcaster Rush Limbaugh called it “one of the most preposterous hoaxes in the history of the planet.”

In fact, the United States is home to more climate-change skeptics than most other countries. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this 2014 graphic, from an Ipsos Mori report. The U.K.-based market research firm surveyed 16,000 people in 20 countries about their attitudes on climate change.

Here’s what they found:

More people in the United States doubt that humans are responsible for climate change than just about any other country. What accounts for this discrepancy?

Our politics. Climate-change denial is a core tenet of one of our two major political parties. Its skepticism is unmatched around the world. A paper from researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway found that among major political parties — even conservative ones — the GOP stands alone in its rejection of the need to tackle climate change. One analysis by PolitiFact agreed that “virtually no Republican” in Washington accepts climate-change science.

It wasn’t always this way. In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain produced an ad praising him as a candidate who “sounded the alarm on global warming.” According to an insightful New York Times article, the party transformed itself into a party of skeptics in just a decade, thanks to “big political money, Democratic hubris in the Obama years and a partisan chasm that grew over nine years like a crack in the Antarctic shelf, favoring extreme positions and uncompromising rhetoric over cooperation and conciliation.”

The Times explains that fossil fuel industry players, like Charles D. and David H. Koch, funded a powerful campaign to scare Republican lawmakers away from supporting climate-change legislation. Their group Americans for Prosperity pushed a “No Climate Tax” pledge and helped unseat supportive Democrats from Virginia. (When the smoke cleared from the 2010 midterms, 83 of the 92 new members of Congress had signed that pledge.) President Obama, frustrated by Congress’s inability to act, pushed executive actions to combat climate change, moves that only further infuriated the right. (“It fell into this notion of executive overreach,” Heather Zichal, an Obama climate adviser, told the New York Times.) The tea party, too, saw fighting climate change as one more big government program it wanted nothing to do with.

This group thinks Trump hasn’t done enough to unravel environmental rules. Here’s its wish list.

That reality is reflected in our news coverage. A 2011 report by James Painter from the University of Oxford and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism looked specifically at how climate change was covered in newspapers in six countries.

He found that U.S. and U.K. print media quoted or mentioned climate change skeptics significantly more than outlets in Brazil, China, India and France. Together, outlets in the United States and Great Britain accounted for about 80 percent of all skeptic quotes and mentions. About 40 percent of those articles ran in opinion sections. American publications were much more likely to quote a skeptical politician than outlets in the other countries, in large part because politicians in the U.K. and U.S. are more skeptical, on the whole, of human-caused climate change.

Painter also found that right-leaning outlets are much more likely to publish skeptics than left-leaning outlets.

And it’s reflected in how Americans think about climate change. Americans are unusually divided on climate change among major democracies. A large percentage of Democrats believe in human-made climate change; many Republicans don’t. As Painter explained to me in an email, “the polarization of attitudes towards climate change between Republicans and Democrats is very acute, and this is not replicated to the same extent in other countries.”

As Pew explained in a 2015 report, this polarization doesn’t look so different than American divides on a lot of other things like abortion and gun control.

In other countries, climate change just isn’t a partisan issue. Broad majorities of people accept what scientists say — that climate change is being caused by humans, who are pumping carbon dioxide into the air at alarming and unprecedented rates. That might be because in many places, people are experiencing the impact of a changing climate directly, so they’re more likely to believe the science. It’s also true that in countries with the highest carbon emissions like the United States, concern about human-created climate change is lowest. Most other places, too, don’t have big lobby groups or think tanks with links to fossil fuel companies pushing out their message into the public sphere and media.