CONTRIBUTORS

The planet’s temperature is rising — and so are Americans’ worries about it

Posted March 17, 2017, at 6:06 a.m.

Public concern about climate change in the U.S. is at an all-time high, according to a new Gallup survey — though not too high. Forty-five percent of the poll’s respondents say they worry about global warming “a great deal,” while 62 percent believe its effects are already occurring. Overall, 68 percent of participants — the highest level reported yet — said they believe climate change is driven by human activities, while 29 percent attribute it to natural causes and 3 percent had no opinion.

Still, these findings are up from a previous high in 2007, when a similar poll found that 41 percent of respondents worried greatly about climate change. Between then and now, American concern about global warming actually declined for four years and has only been on the rise again since 2011. Similarly, the percentage of Americans who believe climate change is already happening previously peaked at 61 percent in 2008 and then declined until 2011.

The reasons for this dip and recovery are unclear from the survey results, but previous research has suggested that public concern about climate change may be linked to the state of the economy. From 2008 to 2010, the U.S. was suffering in the Great Recession — and in times of economic downturn, Americans may be less likely to worry about global warming.

One 2011 paper, for instance, suggested that unemployment rates may affect concerns about climate change. By examining survey data, the study found that an increase in a state’s unemployment rate is associated with a decreased likelihood that its residents believe climate change is occurring and reduced support for climate action.

On the other hand, Americans may be more likely to worry about climate change if they believe the economy is strong. In a study published last year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, participants were presented with scientific information about climate change and later asked to recall the information they were given. The study found that participants who more strongly supported the capitalist economic system in the U.S. were generally more skeptical about the severity of climate change — but these same people also were more likely to recall the climate information they’d been given as being more serious if they were led to believe that the economy was in a state of recovery.

So a stronger economy in the past few years may have helped spur an increase in climate concern among the public. But according to Gallup, recent polls have also found that more than half of Americans believe President Donald Trump will do a poor job of protecting the environment, a significant increase in comparison with the percentage of respondents who believed the same of former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. The survey results can’t necessarily point to a connection between these results, but it’s possible that the increased worry about climate change is part of a general recent uptick in concern about the environment.

The new survey, which was conducted this month, relied on a sample of 1,018 U.S. adults living throughout the 50 states and Washington, D.C. And while only 45 percent of respondents worry greatly about climate change, most people do worry about it at least to some extent. Another 21 percent of respondents said they worry about climate change a “fair amount,” while 18 percent worry only a little. Just 16 percent said they don’t worry at all.

Additionally, the survey finds that most respondents who don’t think climate change effects are occurring now still believe they will happen some time in the future — just 9 percent of participants said they feel the effects of global warming will never occur. The survey also reports that 71 percent of respondents — the highest yet reported by a Gallup survey — say most scientists believe global warming is occurring, while just 5 percent think most scientists believe it’s not. About 22 percent were unsure.

Overall, while belief in (and concern about) climate change in the general public still lags far behind the scientific consensus on the issue, the survey reflects a growing level of worry and awareness in the U.S. It’s a trend occurring at a time when commitment to climate action at the federal level has all but vanished. As Americans grow more sure that climate change is a serious problem, the Trump administration has already begun repealing environmental rules and has proposed significant budget cuts for a number of federal programs that advance climate science or aid in mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Still, while climate change has become an increasingly partisan issue in recent years, there’s other evidence to suggest that concern may growing across the board. On Wednesday, more than a dozen Republicans in the House of Representatives broke ranks with the Trump administration’s dismissive stance on climate change to introduce a resolution affirming the risks of global warming and supporting climate research and mitigation efforts.

“We cannot ignore these challenges, and every member of Congress has a responsibility to our constituents and future generations to support market-based solutions, investments, and innovations that could alleviate the effects of climate change and make our nation more resilient,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Florida, one of the resolution’s lead sponsors, said in a statement. “Our goal with this resolution is to shift the debate from whether climate change is real toward the tangible efforts to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate its effects.”

Chelsea Harvey is a freelance journalist covering science for The Washington Post. She specializes in environmental health and policy.

 

SEE COMMENTS →