What Americans Really Think About Climate Change

Polls and studies reveal it’s the long, tiring grind that changes opinions about global warming.

Demonstrators protest Rex Tillerson outside the office of Senator Chuck Schumer in New York City.  (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters)

We’re facing a week with three environmental news pegs: It’s Earth Day, the March for Science is today, and senior advisors at the White House will soon meet to decide whether the United States will remain in the Paris Agreement.

Because of all three, you will probably soon hear about a number of new and old polls about climate change and the American public.

If you care about climate change, they will be frustrating.

These polls often find that most Americans are worried about climate change. (Six out of 10 Americans are “worried,” according to Yale.) Depending on how firms ask the question, they sometimes even find a majority of Americans are concerned. (Pew finds 45 percent are “worried a great deal”; the same Yale poll found only 20 percent were “very worried.”)

When you start proposing hypothetical policies, the numbers often fall. (Fifty percent of Americans support or strongly support a carbon tax, according to a study from the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College.) But when policies aren’t hypothetical—when they’re the status quo—Americans line up behind them. (Almost 70 percent support former President Obama’s Clean Power Plan; roughly the same number want the United States to stay in the Paris Agreement.)

If you include a partisan watchword in a question, people start answering through a different frame. They give the answer that matches their affiliation—their societal “team”—even if they may harbor doubts about it. There is a vast partisan disagreement, for instance, on the question of whether scientists near-unanimously agree that human industrial activity is causing global warming. (They do; nearly every study finds unanimity on this issue among scientists. But only 13 percent of self-identified conservative Republicans think that’s the case, as compared to 55 percent of liberal Democrats.)

When you leave partisan politics, however, larger majorities appear. Eighty-nine percent and 83 percent of Americans, respectively, support building more solar and wind plants.

When you hear these numbers, they can prompt a certain amount of internal wailing. The Earth is dying. The science is clear. It’s so easy and obvious. So why can’t politicians ​understand that?

The wailing is justified, but also exhausting. The entire story of the issue—from the presentation of the polling data, to the it’s-so-obvious messaging deployed around it, to the frustration vented on social media—seems designed to get people to burn out. And keeping up with all the micro-swings in the polling—concern about climate change is up two percentage points this year!—can seem equally enervating.

Yet there’s little reason to constantly follow the micro-trends in polling, especially the ticks up and down in reported concern. Climate change is a “stuck” issue in American politics. The polling continually points to a larger conclusion: Global warming is a highly partisan issue that most voters do not consider particularly significant to them, personally, even if they are worried about it.

A Yale poll from last month put it starkly: More than 50 percent of Americans believe that climate change will “harm people in the United States,” but fewer than 40 percent of Americans believe it will “harm me, personally.”

A lot of people know about climate change, and a lot of people think it is generally bad. But they do not change their votes because of it. Americans may change their vote because of economic fear, or defense policy, or to protect their property or social privileges. But they do not vote because the ice caps are melting. This is the heart of the climate issue.

There are a few more complicating factors. At this point, if someone is worried about climate change, they’re probably already a consistent Democrat. Journalists have been talking about global warming for 20 years, though not always adeptly. There are just not that many persuadable independents left on the issue.

Climate is an exceptionally hard issue for only one party to “own.” Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions—a process that experts call decarbonization—is much more daunting than just implementing the Clean Power Plan. If we want to stave off dangerous climate change, the United States may need to adjust its energy policy, its tax policy, its foreign policy, its transportation policy, and its industrial policy in the coming years and decades. Historically, changing all those elements together, in the face of a difficult but necessary policy outcome, has been a bipartisan affair.

On top of this, climate even has a small “anti-constituency” of voters. These are men, mostly, who hold down jobs in mining or oil extraction. Some of them are located in populous, electorally strategic states. But decarbonizing might prevent them from supporting a more generous welfare state. I want a world where both parties recognize the urgency of addressing climate change—but, in this one, it is not yet clear  to me that championing decarbonization helps the Democrats more than it hurts them.

What will change this dynamic? The stalemate on climate change is a symptom of a sickly and sclerotic political system, but not the disease itself. If Republican political leaders recognized the reality of climate change, bipartisan majorities on climate change would follow. Dave Roberts has written about this idea at Vox, and a meta-analysis of 74 climate polls between 2002 and 2013 reached the same conclusion.

We see this partisan effect on other issues. When President Obama threatened to bomb Syria in 2013, over the use of chemical weapons, only 22 percent of Republicans supported the strikes. When President Trump did the same thing last month, 86 percent of Republicans swung to support him.

Republican leaders may still be years away from signing onto the issue, though. Joseph Majkut, a climate scientist at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, has talked about the importance of “grinding”: making good-faith, well-supported arguments and trusting that public opinion will eventually follow. Social science has found that the amount of climate-change discussion in the news increases public concern about the issue. People also seem most receptive to doing something about it when the economy is good.

Extreme weather, like heat waves and unusual hurricanes, does not seem to increase general worry about climate change. Instead, it seems to heighten partisan polarization.

Perhaps “grinding” out public opinion is working faster than we think. A majority of young Republicans, ages 18 to 30, believe that human activity is changing the climate. And a majority of them support a carbon tax or some other kind of federal carbon policy.  These young people may never change their votes on account of climate change, but they may force their party leaders to agree with them.

At the same time, climate change as an issue of widespread but low-salience concern means that people tend to be fine with the status quo, when it changes. If the next administration implements a national climate policy, and it does not massively disrupt the economy, then the fat majorities that now support the Paris Agreement and the Clean Power Plan may follow it.

I am not exactly optimistic about the issue, but there is no point wallowing in every new and frustrating poll. They tell the same story. We know the shape of climate change as a national-political issue today. It is frustrating, it can inspire feelings of futility. Indeed, no matter what we do, some global warming is coming for us. But we can still stave off the worst of it.