Survey: Mecklenburg majority believes Earth is warming

A strong majority of Mecklenburg County residents surveyed said they think there’s solid evidence the Earth has warmed in recent decades. An even larger majority said it’s a somewhat or very serious problem.

Yet despite nearly unanimous consensus among climate scientists that global climate change is occurring due to human activity, only about half the Mecklenburg respondents (51.4 percent) said they thought scientists generally agree that the earth is getting warmer because of human activity. And for 2013, fewer respondents than the year before said they believe the Earth is getting warmer.

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In September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pegged the odds that humans are the principal cause of global warming at “at least 95 percent.” That’s up from 90 percent odds the organization reported in 2007. 

The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute’s Annual Survey of 400 county residents, conducted last spring by phone, asked several questions to gauge local beliefs about climate change. For 2013, fewer respondents than the year before said they believe the Earth is getting warmer.

In 2013, 67.7 percent of respondents said they think there is solid evidence the average temperature on Earth has warmed, down from 71.8 percent last year, though that change is within the survey’s 4.96 percentage point margin of error.

More than 23 percent of respondents this year said they did not believe there is solid evidence Earth has been getting warmer over the last few decades – up from 14.9 percent last year.

The results mirror national trends. Yale University’s national survey, in April, found 63 percent of respondents believed the Earth was getting warmer, a 7 percent decrease from their survey in fall 2012.Yale researchers speculated that a colder-than-average winter could have influenced the responses.

On questions about the causes of climate change, confusion increases. In the Mecklenburg County survey, only 39.7 percent of respondents said they believed human activity was the primary cause of global warming. A larger number, 42.3 percent, either didn’t answer or said they did not know the cause. That’s a near reversal of 2012 results, when 45.5 percent cited human activity and 38.6 percent said they didn’t know.  

“I think there’s still a lot of confusion in the general public,” says UNC Charlotte earth science Assistant Professor Manda Adams, an atmospheric scientist who studies the interaction between weather, climate and energy systems.  

The percentage of respondents who said they think scientists generally agree that human activity is causing the Earth to warm, 51.4 percent, was down from 56.3 percent of Mecklenburg County respondents in 2012.

Despite scientific consensus, which has strengthened in recent years, some researchers say news reports and political debates can make it seem as if the consensus is not so strong.

“While it is a relatively small minority (that denies global warming), they are a very vocal minority,” Adams said. “The news will give minority opinions a lot of air time, because it’s not that fun to report on something that everyone agrees on.”

In fact, many climate change scientists have stopped arguing at all about the causes of climate change. In a recent survey of 12,000 scholarly articles related to climate change between 1991 and 2011, only 33 percent took a position on the question. Of those taking a position, more than 97 percent agreed global warming was largely manmade.

Adams, the UNC Charlotte climatologist, said most climate change scientists have moved on to more specific questions about interactions between energy use and climate change, atmospheric and oceanic changes, and relationships between long-term climate change and short-term weather changes.

“Once it gets to that point (of scientific consensus), most scientists don’t really go after trying to prove it or disprove it,” Adams says. “Really, what people can work on are the individual components. There are lots of little parts that we don’t have an understanding of yet.”

Still, 77.1 percent of respondents in Mecklenburg County believed climate change was a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem. Yet the percentage of respondents saying they believed climate change was “not a problem” nearly doubled, from 7.1 percent in 2012 to 14 percent.

The institute’s Annual Survey obtained telephone interviews with a representative sample of 400 people ages 18 and older living in Mecklenburg County. Interviews were conducted via landline (n=320) and cell phone (n=80) by a national survey firm contracted by the institute. The interviews were administered in English and Spanish from May 9 to June 7, 2013. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of sampling error for results based on the complete set of weighted data is +/- 4.96 percentage points.