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?