Science or Policy: What's Driving Perceptions of Climate Change in the U.S.?

Hughes, Jacob, Environmental Sciences - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Macko, Stephen, Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia
Lawrence, Deborah, Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia
McGroddy, Megan, Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia

With the recent news that the Earth’s atmosphere has reached 400 ppm of CO2, climate change has continued to be one of the most salient issues facing the Earth today and in the future. As of one the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, the U.S. has contributed largely to this issue, and will likely need to play a critical role in future greenhouse gas mitigation strategies if climate change is to be solved in the future. However, public opinion on environmental issues like climate change has proven to be highly complex and variable in the U.S. in the last decade. Declines in support, such as decreases in the level of worry and concern, the belief in anthropogenic origins, along with opinions on the scientific consensus over the issue have been reported. While there are many hypotheses as to why this decline has occurred, this thesis will focus on the science behind climate change effects, cues from political elites, and shifts of public opinion along political party lines as driving forces for a decline in public support for the issue over the last decade. Interwoven with these themes is how political elites have used certain avenues and mediums to their advantage to shape the debate over the issue, including the use of the recession of 2008 to transform climate change as an economic issue compared to an environmental one. An examination of the European Union’s response to climate change perceptions in the wake of the recession of 2008 is included in this paper for similarities and differences concerning climate change perceptions between the EU and the U.S. as well. While the highly debatable effects of climate change within the scientific community likely plays some role in shaping public perceptions, political elite cues, maximizing tough economic conditions, has been proven to be a major driver for shifting public opinions concerning climate change in the U.S.

MA (Master of Arts)
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