The Unprecedented Surge in Fear About Climate Change

More Americans than ever are worried about climate change, but they’re not willing to pay much to stop it.

A California firefighter covers his face while battling the Butte Fire in 2015. (Noah Berger / Reuters)

A surging number of Americans understand that climate change is happening and believe that it could harm their family and the country, according to a new poll from Yale and George Mason University.

But at the same time, Americans are not any more willing to pay money to fight climate change than they were three years ago, says another new poll, conducted by the Associated Press and the University of Chicago.

The polls suggest that public opinion about climate change is in a state of upheaval. Even as President Donald Trump has cast doubt on climate change, most Americans have rejected his position. Record numbers of Americans describe climate change as a real and present danger. Nearly a quarter of the country says they already see its tidings in their day-to-day life, saying “personal observations of weather” helped convince them of climate change’s reality.

Despite this increasing acceptance, there is no clear political path forward. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes” were needed to keep the Earth’s temperature from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius. Such a transformation would be, in other words, expensive. But almost 70 percent of Americans say they wouldn’t pay $10 every month to help cool the warming planet.

The data are still striking, suggesting that U.S. concern about climate change has leapt by several points in just the past year. More than seven out of 10 Americans now say that global warming is “personally important” to them, an increase of nine points since March 2018, according to the Yale poll. More Americans than ever—29 percent—also say they are “very worried” about climate change, an eight-point increase.

These changes are basically unprecedented. “We’ve not seen anything like that in the 10 years we’ve been conducting the study,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, a senior research scientist at Yale who helped oversee the poll.

It reflects a large shift, as an outright majority of Americans—a record-high number—believe that climate change could endanger their loved ones. Historically, most Americans have said that global warming “will harm people in the United States” while insisting that it would “not harm me, personally.” Now 57 percent of Americans say global warming will harm their neighbors, 56 percent say it will harm their family, and 49 percent say it will harm them personally.

These changes show up in both new polls. The AP survey found that seven out of 10 of Americans understand climate change is happening. Even more notable: A slim majority of Republicans—52 percent—understand that climate change is real. (The AP asked questions about “climate change,” while Yale polled about “global warming.” The difference in language didn’t seem to change how people replied.)

Climate change itself may be driving this remarkable shift. Nearly half of Americans say that the science supporting climate change is “more convincing” now than it was five years ago, the AP poll found. The vast majority cited “recent extreme weather events”—such as hurricanes, droughts, and heat waves—as especially persuasive.

Yet it’s not clear that Americans are willing to do anything about fighting climate change. Many economists support a carbon tax, a policy that makes polluters pay for emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Forty-four percent of Americans say they would support such a tax, according to the AP.

Americans become more supportive of a carbon tax, though, when they know where the money it collects will go. Sixty-seven percent of Americans would support a carbon tax if it were used to restore forests and wetlands. Majorities also endorse a tax that would support renewable-energy R&D or public-transit improvements. But even then, most people are not willing to spend much. Seventy percent say they would vote against a $10 monthly fee tacked on to their power bill. Forty percent would oppose a $1 monthly increase.

These results don’t lend themselves to straightforward answers about what actions to take next.

Recently, some oil companies and Washington elite have endorsed a deficit-neutral carbon fee, a type of carbon tax that regularly mails revenue collected back to every American as a check. The same proposal would also roll back Environmental Protection Agency rules. The AP poll found Americans were least supportive of this plan: Three out of four said they would oppose a carbon tax that “eases climate-related regulation,” and only half liked the idea of a monthly rebate.

Yet the opposite strategy hasn’t worked either. In November, voters in Washington State considered a carbon tax that would have supported forest restoration, wind and solar energy, and public transit—everything that people just told the AP pollsters they like. Oil companies spent $31 million to defeat the measure, and voters rejected it by a 12-point margin.

The AP and the University of Chicago did not directly ask people about a Green New Deal, a still-hazy progressive plan to fight climate change while expanding federal programs. “But this [poll] sort of supports the idea that it could be politically popular among voters,” says Sam Ori, the executive director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

So what’s going on here? One possibility is that Americans are slowly, grindingly, coming around to the reality of climate change. But political scientists talk about an idea called “thermostatic opinion.” It holds that U.S. public mood works like a seesaw: When one party occupies the White House, voters immediately start to turn against its favored policies and outlook. Though more of an observation than a law, it helps explain why Americans were more conservative in 2013—just after Barack Obama’s second victory—than they had been in decades. Since Trump is both unpopular and linked to climate denial, isn’t it possible that the public mood will just shift again once he leaves office?

Leiserowitz, the Yale scientist, isn’t so sure. Americans are more certain about climate change now than they have been since 2008, he said. But 2008 was a different moment: Both major parties endorsed the reality of climate change, and the Republican candidate in that year’s election, John McCain, even had his own climate plan. So strong cues from both parties’ political elite suggested that it was okay to accept climate change—and public opinion followed.

Now the country’s president has vacillated on the reality of climate change, calling it an “expensive hoax,” then revising his view. Climate change “is one of the most politically polarized issues in Americans,” Leiserowitz said. “So the fact that Trump is now a hoaxer in chief and yet these numbers are going up is actually really interesting.”