Climate attitudes on the move: year in review

Climate attitudes on the move: year in review

Despite its flaws, the Paris Agreement represents a global mandate for climate action and is a promising indicator of how governments are beginning to respond to the crisis. Faced with a barrage of manufactured uncertainty from fossil fuel industry leaders, Americans have notably lagged behind much of the world when it comes to issue understanding and concern about climate disruption. I looked back over a number of this year’s key polls and public opinion surveys to see how American attitudes on climate change are shifting and there are a few promising signals that the tide is turning.

Americans understand there’s a problem…

Even with climate change’s continued depiction in the media as a highly contentious issue, a majority of Americans understand that global warming is happening (67%) and is due to human activities (53%). This awareness of the problem is on a slight upward trend with more than half (55%) of Americans saying that impacts are already occurring. Recent surveys also show movement among Republican voters, with a majority (56%) saying human-activity is contributing to a changing climate.

What continues to be confusing for Americans is scientific consensus, with a dismal few (12%) understanding that almost all climate scientists have concluded global warming is happening. Yet, even with this incomprehension, a large majority (87%) of voters say they want presidential candidates to have a basic understanding of science.

Public understanding on a slow climb

….and are, sort of, concerned about it,

Make no mistake, climate change continues to be plagued with the problematic hallmarks of political polarization. Partisanship is still one of the most significant determinants of public opinion on the issue. However, there is a growing divide among Republicans, with a majority (61%) of moderate Republicans saying global warming is happening and a growing number (36%) saying it’s a very serious problem. Recent research from Yale and George Mason University offers some eye opening insight:

“Too often, the debate about climate is portrayed as one between Democrats and Republicans. In fact, it’s not. It’s a debate between most Americans and conservative Republicans. Liberal and moderate Republicans often have views about global warming that are similar to Democrats and Independents.”

Rising levels of concern among moderate Republicans

We have some catching up to do

In fact, there was an increase in concern across all ideological groups in the past year. While more than half (57%) of Americans are worried about global warming, far fewer (16%) are very worried and slightly more than a third (37%) think of it as a serious threat. For many, climate change remains abstract and distant, with most Americans saying it’s more likely to harm future generations, plants and animals, and people in developing countries before affecting them and their own communities. Research on the health impacts of climate change found a majority (64%) of respondents agreed that climate change is harmful to human health, although few were actually able to identify specific health effects.

Continued perception as a distant threat

This year’s record high temperatures, historic drought conditions, and extreme storms are increasingly making climate change harder to ignore and more personally relevant. Yet, it still ranks near the bottom of the public’s policy priorities, supplanting global trade issues to take over second-to-last place in 2015.

But (good news!) solutions are super popular.

Given the misinformation campaigns about climate science and pressures from the fossil fuel industry to maintain a status quo, Americans’ excitement for energy solutions across political affiliations is somewhat counterintuitive. Polling shows that Americans are more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who strongly supports climate action and large majorities support energy solutions, including better fuel efficiency for cars and trucks (81%), stricter limits on power plant emissions (64%), solar (78%) and wind (75%). Americans roundly agree that corporations and industry should be doing more to address global warming (72%) and that climate action will mean a better life for our children and grandchildren (63%).

Strong support for climate and energy solutions

Clean energy isn’t just for Democrats. Net metering and rooftop solar are particularly popular among Republicans with a large majority (72%) supporting accelerated development of renewable energy sources. Still, it should be noted that regulatory action remains off the table for most conservatives, with only 10% of Republicans supporting EPA regulations.

Republicans heart solar

Communities of color, who are disproportionately affected by climate change in the U.S. — from the health impacts of air pollution and heat waves to the difficulties of rebuilding following extreme weather events — are also overwhelmingly ready for solutions. A large majority (78%) of Latinos say they have personally experienced climate impacts and perhaps because of this, are also willing to pay more for electricity from renewable sources. More than half (59%) of Latinos agree there doesn’t need to be a tradeoff between protecting the environment and economic growth. A majority (66%) of African-Americans also believes renewable energy will translate into new jobs. Among African-Americans, 87% support solar power, 83% support wind, and 83% support the Clean Power Plan.

Surveys show the Pope’s highly publicized visit and his call to action on climate change shifted attitudes this year with 17% of Americans and 35% of Catholics saying Pope Francis’ position on climate change influenced their own views. The message of moral obligation has been a growing frame among interfaith leaders and across the climate movement as a whole. A large majority (75%) of Americans say the the U.S. has a moral obligation to reduce carbon emissions.

Now for cautious optimism in the new year.

Looking back at the polling trends of 2015, I see a troubling continued misunderstanding of scientific consensus alongside an encouraging increase in recognition that climate change is occurring and cause for concern. Climate impacts are beginning to feel more personally relevant, particularly for communities of color, and some deeply entrenched partisanship is starting to erode.

As a country, we’re head over heels for the idea of clean energy, yet this enthusiasm is unfortunately tempered by a sense that we won’t actually get our act together, with a dispiriting 4% believing that we can successfully reduce climate disruption. This dichotomy between hope and fatalism illustrates why it’s critical to show how clean energy solutions exist here and now and can deliver economic opportunities and healthy communities. The show of global support for action in Paris may be just what is needed to boost Americans’ collective optimism that a transition away from fossil fuels to a clean energy economy is possible.


Photo via (cc) Flickr user Mark Scrimshire