About 65 percent of Spokane County residents think global warming is happening, but only about 45 percent believe it’s mostly human-caused, according to a national model of climate change perceptions.
The modeling is the first to track public opinions of global warming across more than 3,000 U.S. counties, illustrating geographic variations within most states.
In Washington, for instance, King County residents are most likely to believe that global warming is real (74 percent) and mostly human-caused (55 percent). Lewis County has the highest proportion of skeptics: 56 percent of residents in the rural, Southwest Washington county think global warming is real and 40 percent believe it’s mostly human-caused.
Idaho has a similar divide. In Latah County, which is home to the University of Idaho, 67 percent of residents believe global warming is happening, compared to 52 percent in neighboring Benewah County.
Yale University and Utah State University researchers developed the model with the goal of helping state and local government officials present information to their constituents.
The work of planning for a changing climate, such as protecting communities from increased risk of wildfires or flooding, falls mostly to state and local governments, said Peter Howe, a Utah State assistant professor and lead author of a recent article on the modeling in the Nature Climate Change journal. But because of the expense involved in polling, most climate change surveys are done at the national level.
“We wanted a tool to provide these decision-makers with data on what people in their areas think about these issues,” Howe said.
The model was based on surveys of 13,000 people, along with analyses of counties’ demographic characteristics, including factors such as political views and education levels. Because of the model’s large size, the researchers estimate that the county-level data has an 8 percent margin of error.
Phone surveys of 1,000 Skagit County residents over the next two weeks will help test the model’s accuracy in Washington.
Knowing local residents’ views on climate change can help officials tailor messages to their audiences, said Carol Macilroy, administrator for Skagit Climate Change, a nonprofit group of scientists that is partnering with Yale on the phone polling in Skagit County.
She recently talked to the manager for a dike district, who told her he didn’t think climate change was human-caused, but he was concerned about the changes he was seeing in river flows.
“We had a powerful conversation … about how that impacts the cost of dike maintenance,” Macilroy said. “We don’t need to prove to anybody that climate change is human-caused. We can talk about what do you do if those trends continue.”
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