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Joe Scarborough claimed that people have been "wandering away" from the issue of climate change. Joe Scarborough claimed that people have been "wandering away" from the issue of climate change.

Joe Scarborough claimed that people have been "wandering away" from the issue of climate change.

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg May 13, 2014

Scarborough: Americans have cooled on climate change

As Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio edges closer to a 2016 presidential bid, he wants Republican primary voters to know where he stands on litmus test issues like climate change.

"I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate," Rubio said on ABC's This Week. "I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy."

Many Republican voters would nod in agreement, but the question is, how well does this view sit with the public at large?

Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, said Rubio might be on relatively safe ground with the public.

"From 2004, 2005, 2006, Americans were bought in to the concept of climate change and that we need to move aggressively on it," Scarborough said.

But since then, the public shifted, he said.

"Check the polling: Most Americans began wandering away from this issue," Scarborough said.

From Scarborough’s lips to our ears. In this fact-check, we review the polls on climate change and global warming (terms that are used interchangeably) to see if Americans care less than they did half a dozen years ago.

Pollsters get at this question in a few ways. We’ll look at each one.

Is it happening?

For nearly 15 years, the Gallup organization has been asking people if they think global warming is underway. In 2002, 71 percent of the public said it is happening or will happen in their lifetime. That percentage peaked at 75 percent in 2008 and then fell.

It reached a low of 62 percent in 2011 and since then has risen slightly. As of March 2014, it stood at 65 percent. With a margin of error of 4 percent, the result is modestly less than what Gallup reported in 2002.

We find similar but slightly larger swings of opinion in the Pew Research Center data, although the Pew survey only goes back to 2006. Pew asks if people see solid evidence that the earth is warming. In 2006, 77 percent said yes. That fell to 57 percent in 2009, then rose to 67 percent in 2013.

The trends don't exactly match the pattern Scarborough described. He suggested a simple slide down. In reality, there’s more of an up-down-up. Still, the public seems a little less certain about climate change today than in the mid 2000s.

Is it something you worry about?

Even if you believe the climate is changing, it might not cause you great concern. A group of university researchers from Drexel, McGill and Ohio State blended the results from a number of surveys to derive what they called the Climate Change Threat Index. Basically, the index captures whether people take the issue seriously. Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University, is part of the team.

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From 2002 to 2005, the value of the index fluctuated between 40 and 45. (These are abstract units and should not be confused with the percentage of people who care.) Then it gained about 10 points.

"The big shift started in 2006 and coincided with the release of Al Gore’s movie  An Inconvenient Truth," Brulle said. "It dropped off in the fall of 2008 after the big recession and the Wall Street meltdown."

Today, the index is about where is was in 2004. Again, up-down-up.

Interestingly, Brulle and his colleagues Jason Carmichael and J. Craig Jenkins found that two factors primarily drive public concern about climate change. First, people worry more about it so long as more pressing problems like the economy don’t loom larger. Second, Republicans effectively can dial concern up or down.

The partisan split on this issue shows up in every survey. The more Republican the voter, the less likely they are to say climate change is real or that it will make a difference. When Republican leaders are more vocal in their rejection of climate change (such as voting against a particular bill), public concern falls, at least among Republican leaning voters. When those leaders treat it more seriously, concern rises.

But do you worry about it a lot?

Gallup gets at the level of concern by asking people if they think global warming will pose a serious threat to them or their way of life in their lifetime. In 2004, about 34 percent answered yes. That rose to 40 percent in 2008, then fell to a low of 32 percent in 2010. It then rose to 38 percent and slid a bit to 36 percent where it stands today.

When you account for the margin of error, public opinion has yo-yoed a bit but hasn’t changed all that much.

Gallup finds that few American list climate change as a top concern. It ranked near the bottom out of 15 issues polled. Asked how much they worry, 51 percent said little or not at all about climate change, compared to just 11 percent who said they were unconcerned about the economy.

Are humans causing it?

In 2006, Pew found that 41 percent of public thought the Earth was getting warmer mainly due to human activity such as burning fossil fuels. In keeping with the pattern we saw for other questions, that number dropped to 34 percent in 2010, and then rose to 44 percent by the end of 2013.

On this point, the partisan divide is pronounced. Just 24 percent of Republicans thought humans were driving climate change, compared to 43 percent of independents and 66 percent of Democrats.

The Gallup polls show a similar pattern. In 2004, 61 percent thought humans were making the planet warmer. That fell to 50 percent in 2010, followed by a rise to 57 percent today.

Again, the polling shows a slight decline in public buy-in on climate change since 2004, but it has risen from a low point a few years ago.

Our ruling

Scarborough said Americans have "have wandered away" from the issue of climate change since 2004. They certainly did, as polls consistently show dips through 2010. However, support has inched back in recent years. 

While the recent gains remain below the 2004 levels, the overall drop isn't as dramatic as Scarborough makes it sound.

We rate this claim Half True.

Our Sources

MSNBC, Morning Joe, May 12, 2014

Pew Research Center, Climate Change: Key Data Points from Pew Research, Jan. 27, 2014

Pew Research Center, GOP Deeply Divided Over Climate Change, Nov. 1, 2013

Robert J. Brulle, Jason Carmichael and J. Craig Jenkins, Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S., 2002–2010, Jan. 2012

Gallup, A Steady 57% in U.S. Blame Humans for Global Warming, March 18, 2014

Gallup, In U.S., Most Do Not See Global Warming as Serious Threat, March 13, 2014

Gallup, Climate Change Not a Top Worry in U.S., March 12, 2014

Los Angeles Times, Marco Rubio says human activity isn't causing climate change, May 11, 2014

Email interview, Robert Brulle, professor of sociology, Drexel University, May 12, 2014

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