What Makes People Who Really Care About Climate Change Different?

Many Americans say global warming is real. But far fewer believe it’s a pressing national priority.

People march during a rally against climate change in New York. (Eduardo Munoz / Reuters)

It’s a well-documented paradox that the average American citizen believes climate change is a much bigger deal than the average American legislator does.

That was the case in 1997 with Kyoto Protocol, which Congress refused to ratify despite public support for action. Today, as congressional Republicans grumble about the Paris climate talks, two-thirds of Americans support joining an international treaty addressing carbon emissions.

That disconnect disappears, however, when you ask the right question. Late last year, a comprehensive survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that only 5 percent of Americans saw climate change as the country’s No. 1 challenge. Most said jobs, income inequality, and health care were more important.

“Climate change is an incredibly difficult issue to get really fired up about—its effects are so incremental and slow-moving, they’re difficult to perceive,” said Daniel Cox, PRRI’s director of research. “With the environment and the economy, there’s always a trade-off. And when people are are particularly economically distressed, support for environmental policy drops off.”

If President Obama is to succeed in convincing Congress to support his climate change agenda, he first needs to widen support for immediate action in the American public. To do that, he’ll have to figure out who’s already with him.

So if the profile of climate change “true believer” is currently a well-educated, left-leaning, agnostic Generation X-er, who’s next?

Millennials. (Who else?) Given that generation’s interest in green living, its relatively soft engagement on climate compared to older Americans continues to surprise, Cox said. But that may change soon, opening up a new, wide avenue of support.

“I think they’re just not tuned in,” he said. “Every younger generation goes through the same growing pains. You start off not being connected, but as you get older, you start paying attention to issues.”

Another area of growth could be within the ranks of the faithful. Climate change, unlike abortion or gay marriage, doesn’t carry the baggage of the culture wars. And people who hear about global warming from the pulpit are more likely to call it a crisis, PRRI’s research shows.

But perplexingly, the biggest block to climate change bipartisanship may be … well, partisanship. Polls show that the line between Republican and Democrats has hardened, Cox said. Absent a prominent Republican staking a claim on addressing global warming, he’s not sure how that’ll change. In the end, it may be the biggest demographic hurdle of all.