Do Americans really care about climate change?
Rolling into 2020 11 months ago, we might have heeded the December 2019 Australian bushfires as a smoke signal — a harbinger of what would become California’s largest wildfire season on record, with more than 9,000 fires burning over in 4 million acres of land. Or it could’ve been a signal that we would soon confront one of the most active hurricane seasons in the Atlantic, where more than 30 storms have taxed the alphabet-naming system, not to mention coastal Southerners.
Between record heat, hurricanes and wildfires, the country has endured billions in damages and nearly 200 deaths. So it should come as no surprise that 72 percent of Americans believe that climate change is happening, according to the Yale Climate Opinion Maps 2020. Of the nearly 25,000 American adults surveyed, 63 percent said climate change is something that worries them. That’s up from 44 percent in 2008, according to Pew Research Center.
What is surprising, however, is that the majority of Americans still do not believe climate change will affect them personally. According to the Yale research …
ONLY 43 PERCENT BELIEVED GLOBAL WARMING WOULD IMPACT THEM DIRECTLY.
And that figure, of course, translates into political will and policy. In fact, the percentage nearly mirrors the number of Americans — at 42 percent — who said climate change would inform their vote this year, according to Pew. The majority of voters were more concerned with the economy, health care and COVID-19.
So why the disconnect? Jennifer Marlon, a researcher at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and producer of the Yale Climate Opinion Maps, points to American leadership. “So many people are being affected [by climate change] already. The thing is, they don’t realize it, and part of the reason they don’t realize it is because our president is playing it down or just outright denying it, and that’s really frustrating.”
The divide is also deepening along partisan lines. According to Pew, only 31 percent of Republicans now feel climate change poses a significant threat, compared to 85 percent of Democrats.
“There is a trend in this country to question science as a basis for decision-making,” says Matthew R. Auer, dean of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia, who researches climate change communications and perceptions. When you don’t trust science, your information “is entangled with the politics of science, which has become more intense and exaggerated over time,” he adds.
The burden of reestablishing faith in scientific expertise falls to the executive, and it will be an uphill battle for President-elect Joe Biden. “They’re still going to be gridlocked,” Auer says, referring to the government. But a medicine-in-the-candy approach could help. “In some areas, if you depoliticize and get away from certain nouns and adjectives and start talking about creating incentives that work great for the economy of red states, they’re not going to complain,” he continued.
Whatever the approach, it needs to start with a leader who’s willing to heed the expertise of climate scientists.