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Despite the best efforts of politicians who deny that climate change is occurring, polls consistently show that the majority of Americans believe the globe is getting warmer. Most research, though, has focused on public opinion at the national level, despite that fact that much of the success in implementing policies that address climate change has happened on the state and local level.
A new study conducted by researchers from Yale and Utah State University presents the public's perception of climate change down to the county level — and the results show that how you feel about climate change may have a lot to do with where you live.
"Public support really drills down to the local level across the United States," Matto Mildenberger, director of Yale's Program on Climate Governance and Policy and an author on the study, told VICE News. "This shows that there's still variation even within states that we should think about when organizing and deciding on policies."
Using responses from 12 surveys of more than 12,000 Americans, the researchers created a model that projected beliefs about climate change for every state, Congressional district, and county in America. They then surveyed 800 people in several counties and 700 in several cities to serve as a check of their model's accuracy.
They evaluated how many Americans believe climate change is happening and if humans are causing it. They also asked how concerned they feel about the effects of climate change and whether they support policies to curb carbon emissions or boost renewable energy production.
In Texas, for example, 63 percent of residents statewide believe climate change is happening. But zoom in to the counties, and a more complex picture emerges. In Travis County, with Austin as its county seat, 72 percent of respondents said climate change is happening. In Kenedy County, which lies at the southern tip of the state, that number drops to 48 percent.
In only 75 of the 3,143 US counties — about 2 percent — do less than half or residents deny that climate change is happening. Nationally, 63 percent of American's say the globe is warming, but only 48 percent think humans cause it.
At 74 percent, Washington DC, showed the highest level of concern for global warming. The lowest was Pickett County, Tennessee, at 38 percent. Fifty-two percent of people nationally are worried about global warming.
"The first rule of communication is 'know your audience,'" Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, told VICE News. "If most members of your audience already understand that human-caused climate change is happening, climate educators can focus their efforts on new information that will be of greater value to audience members."
The study is the latest in a growing body of research showing that simply giving people the facts on climate change isn't enough to change their minds. A 2012 analysis of 74 studies covering nine years of shifting public perception found that one of the most important drivers of belief around climate change is what people are hearing from their politicians.
"What we're seeing is that we're having a fake political debate about the realities of climate change and about climate science itself and that absolutely gets reflected in polling data," Aaron Huertas, a climate science communications officer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told VICE News. "There's this blue-red divide about the climate science that absolutely shouldn't be there."
According to the study, the 10 metro areas with the highest belief in climate change are largely in traditionally blue states, like New York and California. The 10 lowest are in traditionally Republican-leaning states like Alabama and Kentucky.
Whether or not they think climate change is happening and humans are causing it, the American public largely supports policy efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build greater amounts of clean energy. Nationally, 63 percent support strict carbon dioxide limits on coal-fired power plants, 77 percent support subsidies for renewable energy research, and 61 percent support a requirement for power companies to produce a portion of their electricity with renewables.
"The American public is quite supportive of efforts to protect the US environment," Mildenberger told VICE News. "That belief and support is happening independently of their specific belief about climate change and its human cause."
Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro