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Column: Climate change denial is America's teenage rebellion

No one can deny that the U.S. is currently facing an identity crisis. America has split into two sides, creating a chasm of uncertainty. This convoluted reality of American ideology is thrown into stark relief when you look at climate change denial.

According to Pew, only 48 percent of Americans believe that our warming climate is due to human-caused activities, with the remainder believing either that climate variability is due to natural causes, or that there is no evidence of a changing climate. In the same poll, only 33 percent of respondents thought that scientists understand whether or not climate change is occurring and only 39 percent would trust climate scientists to give accurate information about climate change. 

However, our initial impressions of a neatly divided America become foggier once you pair these responses with current politics. Climate change denial is linked more closely with political identity than it is with the individual’s level of scientific knowledge. Bizarrely, though, the American public thinks that climate scientists should have a role in climate policies 23 percent more than it thinks the same for elected officials. Overall, the confidence gap between scientists and elected officials to work in the public interest is 49 percent, in favor of scientists. 

This reveals an interesting and incredibly confusing truth about Americans: We do not trust climate scientists with climate change, but we theoretically trust them to make policy. On the other hand, we do not trust policy officials with policy, and yet we follow their opinions on climate change.

If you look at these numbers in isolation of recent events, you might conclude that America has gone insane. However, I think modern climate change denial can be viewed as part of Americans’ larger problems with authority. Gallup polls demonstrate that confidence in institutions overall has been in decline since the 1970s. The election of businessman Donald Trump to America’s highest political office last fall – defeating one of the most experienced political candidates in history – attests to that trend. These polls might be inconsistent with each other, but they are very consistent with long-term trends that show Americans are becoming more skeptical of the establishment.

Science is an institution, one that goes back thousands of years. Much of the Enlightenment philosophy that led to the American Revolution and subsequently formed the backbone of our Constitution grew out of scientific empiricism. If Americans are revolting against the American government, it makes sense that they should also revolt against the institutions that helped create it. 

Unfortunately, this has left quite a leadership vacuum for the American public. We don’t trust our institutions. We don’t even trust ourselves. This vacuum breeds uncertainty and conflict, creating an atmosphere that breeds both alternative facts and fake news. Our falling trust in institutions is the reason why it has been so easy to convince this country that global warming isn’t happening. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that must end if we want to have any hope of stopping climate change.

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