People from North Carolina to Texas’ Gulf Coast agree that their areas have been hard hit by extreme storms and hurricanes in recent years. But they disagree with one another on whether climate change is a major factor — and political allegiances make up the dividing line.
Across the United States, different regions have felt the effects of extreme weather in the past few years, whether horrific wildfires in California and other Western states, historic flooding in parts of the Midwest, or extraordinary heat in New England, the Mid-Atlantic and the Southeast.
But those common experiences have not produced a political consensus on the causes. Democrats are likely to cite global warming and climate change as the force behind some of the new weather patterns. Republicans are likely to discount climate change as the culprit.
These are among the findings of a wide-ranging poll conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. The survey included hundreds of interviews with residents of four regions dealing with different weather and environmental problems that scientists say have been exacerbated by climate change.
In the coastal states from the Carolinas to Texas, more than 8 in 10 Democrats and more than 7 in 10 Republicans said their areas have been hit by extreme storms. But while about 6 in 10 Democratic-leaning adults in the region pointed to climate change as a major factor, barely 2 in 10 Republican-leaning adults saw it that way.
“This summer I could barely go out,” said Patricia Schoene, 69, a Democrat and retired English teacher near Orlando who has lived in Florida most of her life. “I read about carbon in the atmosphere, and these things are very real.”
“Yes, there’s climate change, but it’s been occurring since the beginning of time,” said Lance Bottari, 70, a retired engineer living in the Florida Keys who leans Republican and supports President Donald Trump. But climate change is “a giant scam to make the United States pay for all sorts of things to improve the rest of the world.”
The results highlight the degree to which regional weather patterns are now viewed through partisan lenses, just as the national debate about climate has been dominated by sharp differences between Republicans and Democrats over whether scientific evidence of climate change is valid.
Southwestern states and California have experienced severe drought in recent years, along with devastating wildfires. About 6 in 10 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents in those states said climate change is a major factor. Yet no more than 2 in 10 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents agreed. The survey was conducted in July and August, before a new wave of wildfires hit the area this fall.
“I understand how difficult it is to determine that something is causing something,” said Stanford epidemiology professor David Rehkopf, 47, who lives in Menlo Park, California. Noting big periodic droughts and air quality problems reaching far beyond the location of wildfires, he said climate change requires precautionary action. “Weigh the results of not taking an action,” he said.
But a 56 percent majority of Republican-leaning adults nationwide said the seriousness of global warming and climate change are exaggerated, according to The Post-KFF poll.
“I think the whole blaming on climate change is inflated,” said Amy Blann, a 36 year-old stay-at-home-mom in Carson City, Nevada. “For one, it’s cyclical. Two, [there has been] an increase in population and an increase in water usage.”
Dawn Jackson, 60, of Gilbert, Arizona, echoed that sentiment. “We’ll get an 118 degree day once in a while, but that’s just how it is. It’s always been hot here.”
On the other side of the country, in New England, New York and New Jersey, residents have been hit by some of the nation’s fastest-rising temperatures over the past century. Rising water temperatures have brought increased flooding in Rhode Island.
In these states, about 1 in 10 residents who lean Republican and perceive an increase in flooding or intense storms said climate change is a major driver of those events, compared with more than 4 in 10 Democrats.
Warming and environmental changes have also been concentrated in the region that includes a band of Northern and Western states, including Montana, Idaho, the Dakotas and Minnesota. More than 6 in 10 Democrats in those states said that extremely hot days have been occurring and that climate change is a major factor, compared with about fewer than 1 in 10 Republicans.
“I think it’s cyclical. We’ve had good years, bad years,” said Jolene Stewart, a registered nurse living in Wagner, South Dakota, who grows berries as a side-business. She said people have a responsibility to be good stewards of the land, and she recently had solar panels installed at her home. But she is skeptical toward those who emphasize the threat of climate change, including former vice president Al Gore. “I don’t believe all the hype about global warming. generally,” she said.
In many cases, what people perceived coincided with what they believed, especially when it came to “extremely hot days.”
In the Southwest and California, 92 percent of Democratic-leaning adults said their area had experienced extremely hot days in the past five years, compared with 66 percent of Republican-leaning adults.
In New England, New York and New Jersey, 80 percent of Democrats said their areas have experienced extremely hot days compared with 60 percent of Republicans.
Along the southern seaboard and Gulf Coast, the partisan differences are smaller, with 90 percent of Democrats and 83 percent of Republicans saying their area has experienced extremely hot days in recent years.
While Democrats were far more likely to say that climate change is a major factor in the extreme weather hitting different regions, many Republicans said that climate is at least a minor factor.
In the Southeast and Gulf Coast region, Democrats were more than twice as likely as Republicans — 67 percent to 32 percent — to say climate change is a “major factor” in extreme heat. But an additional 33 percent of Republicans said climate change is a “minor factor.”
The results are similar on the question of whether climate change is helping to cause the severe storms that have hit the region. In the past three years, the Southeast and Gulf Coast have been hit by four hurricanes rated as Category 5. Democrats were nearly three times as likely to say climate change is a “major factor” driving such storms in their area, but half of Republicans said it is at least a “minor factor.”
The pattern holds in the Southwest and California. Roughly half of Republicans said climate change is at least a “minor factor” in recent drought and water shortages occurring in their area, although a 20 percent minority said this has been a major factor, compared with 63 percent of Democrats who said the same.
The Post-KFF survey was conducted online and by telephone from July 9 to Aug. 5, 2019, among a national sample of 2,293 adults through AmeriSpeak, a survey panel recruited through a random selection of U.S. households by NORC at the University of Chicago.