The Highs and Lows of American Climate Change Perception

June 2017: Me (right) and my colleague posing in front of Emerald Lake northwest of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory

There are few professions where workers interact with “skeptics” or “deniers.” Singers do not hear from “song-skeptics” and bakers do not interact with “donut-deniers,” yet the same is not true for unfortunate climate scientists. Climate scientists overwhelmingly believe that global climate change is caused by human activity1, yet many American “climate-skeptics” and “climate-deniers” disagree. Though 70% of Americans believe that climate change is occurring, almost a third (32%) believe climate change is due to natural causes2. With that number of doubtful Americans, it’s not surprising that I’ve had a few awkward conversations while involved with projects studying climate change.

During Summer 2017, I was in the Rocky Mountains working on an experiment that studied adaptation in the face of climate change. I took great pride in this work, so I was eager to inform curious passing hikers. Climate-skeptics were easy to identify; the moment I said “climate change,” some hikers would smile approvingly, but others would shut down with a suddenly uninterested “oh.” My first response was disappointment and anger, but it’s difficult to malign climate-skeptics when the highest office of American government sympathizes with them. On April 1, 2017, Donald Trump told the world that America would be pulling out of the Paris Agreement. Though tragic, the news was not surprising considering that on multiple occasions Trump has called climate change “a hoax.” Trump also elected known climate-skeptic Scott Pruitt to direct the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s therefore no wonder why climate-deniers feel so secure in their beliefs.

Despite current American government representation, one cannot forget that the majority of Americans do believe in human-caused climate change. During my time in the Rockies, I had far more positive interactions with citizens than negative ones. Once, I was speaking to a passing woman about my goals of studying and communicating climate change. As she was leaving, she casually called back over her shoulder, “We’re counting on you!” The comment was all the motivation I’ll ever need to pursue climate change ecology; in fact, I’ve come close to tattooing the quote onto myself. Americans are also combating Trump’s choice to pull out of the Paris Agreement. The “We Are Still In” coalition is working to uphold the promises America made while party to the Paris Agreement and is currently growing. Americans will participate despite Trump.

Like every other important topic in America, climate change is fiercely debated. Trump will likely continue to oppose climate reform, but a presidential term is only four years. In the meantime, I hope that American citizens will continue to keep their faith in sane science.


  1. Cook, John, Naomi Oreskes, Peter T. Doran, William R. L. Anderegg, Bart Verheggen, Ed W, Maibach, J. Stuart Carlton, Stephan Lewandowsky, Andrew G. Skuce, and Sarah A. Green (2016). «Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming.» Environmental Research Letters, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/11/4/048002
  2. Howe, Peter D., Matto Mildenberger, Jennifer R. Marlon, and Anthony Leiserowitz (2015). “Geographic variation in opinions on climate change at state and local scales in the USA.” Nature Climate Change, doi:10.1038/nclimate2583

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