How Mistrust Shapes Climate Change Denial in the US

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How Mistrust Shapes Climate Change Denial in the US

A collaborative study from the University of Cambridge and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) revealed that US voters who are distrustful of universities and academics are also those who do not believe that human actions cause climate change.

Based on a survey of 2,096 US voters, researchers find that despite the increasing catastrophic weather events like wildfires, floods, and hurricanes that are becoming more severe, their study finds that nearly half of US voters (45%) believe that climate change is not a problem at all and 41% believes that climate change is a natural occurring phenomenon and not caused by humans.

Professor Debnath, one of the study authors, said, “This lack of trust in higher education and evidence-based research makes the public more vulnerable to opinion-based arguments from powerful actors who disproportionately profit from climate denialism” (Casciato, 2023).

Researchers also find that among variables like age, gender, race, education, and region that are driving climate denialism, trust in the institution is the most significant factor. Among voters, younger ones tend to trust the institution more.

This finding of the lack of trust in academic research concerns the study’s researchers and urges universities and scientists to make more effort in re-establishing public trust through improved communication and public education starting from primary schools. They are also urging religious leaders and influencers to pass on the facts of climate science.

Read the study: Why don’t Americans trust university researchers and why it matters for climate change

Meanwhile, an in-depth interview conducted by the Pew Research Center on American adults who do not believe that climate change is a problem that needs urgent action explains why they hold this view.

The Pew Research Center interviewed 32 US adults and found that the language used to describe climate change as a crisis and urgent threat is met with suspicion by many participants. Interviewees’ response shows a disconnect between the crisis rhetoric and the participant’s beliefs and experiences, which drives doubts and mistrust in the motivations of people making these claims.

Respondents interviewed virtually in May 2023 come from five US geographic areas – the Midwest, Mountain West, South, Southwest and Coastal Florida.

Their key findings include:

  • Respondents do not trust the national media outlet as a credible source for climate information because they believe these new outlets present information that suits their own agenda (influenced by their political leanings). They would rather hear factual statements from scientists.
  • Although respondents value climate scientists’ expertise, some don’t fully trust them because of uncertainty in their financial and personal motivations.
  • When it comes to the renewable energy transition, interviewees stressed the importance of respecting individual freedoms and criticised policies that will end the production of new gas-powered vehicles. 45% of Americans would feel upset if new ICE production is phased out.
  • Among the interviewees, 46% believe that human activity is the main reason why the earth is warming, 26% say warming is just a natural pattern and has nothing to do with human actions, and 14% do not believe that there is evidence that the earth is warming at all.
  • Regarding policy actions, 37% of interviewees think climate change should be a top priority for the government. 34% say it is essential but a lower priority.
  • They see extreme weather events as a part of natural patterns and that they are not happening more frequently or severely than in the past. They only seem to be happening more regularly and severely now because of the availability of information.
  • They also see that the framing of calls to action on climate change is quite alarmist. For example, framing that climate change threatens human lives and those that predict that it will end life on earth as we know it is driving more scepticism rather than actions. 
  • The survey finds that 23% of Americans say that they have little or no trust in climate scientists to provide complete and accurate information on climate change, 22% say they have some confidence in climate scientists, and 54% of Americans say they have either a great deal or quite a bit of trust in information from climate scientists.
  • On policy, they are supportive of efforts to improve environmental quality, especially at a local level, which highlights a common ground among American’s concern about the environment regardless of their belief about climate change.

    Some respondents feel that government programmes should provide a way or incentives for individuals to help the environment on their own, such as recycling, protecting and preserving natural lands and waterways, etc., and they also prefer policies that address climate change and protect the environment that avoids financial burden, respects personal freedoms and stays local.

Read the findings of the PEW Research survey: Why Some Americans Do Not See Urgency on Climate Change


Casciato, P. (2023, September 8). Where’s the trust? US climate deniers have no faith in university researchers. Retrieved from

Pasquini, G., Spencer, A., & Funk, C. (2023, August 9). Why Some Americans Do Not See Urgency on Climate Change. Pew Resesarch Center. Retrieved from

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