Public Opinion and Climate Change - U.S Perspectives

We don’t really worry about climate change because it’s too overwhelming and we’re already in too deep. It’s like if you owe your bookie $1,000, you’re like, ‘OK, I’ve got to pay this dude back.’ But if you owe your bookie $1 million dollars, you’re like, ‘I guess I’m just going to die.’” — Colin Jost, Saturday Night Live, 13 October 2018

The above quote is from a Saturday Night Live skit on the weekend following release of a report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report was one of the most dramatic ones yet, predicting that some of the most severe social and economic damage from the rise in global temperatures could come as soon at 2040. And yet, two comedians, Colin Jost and Michael Che, summed up the difficult (and perhaps impossible) politics of the issue in less than three minutes. You don’t have to be a climate denier to be, in the end, indifferent to the issue.

As the climate crisis becomes more serious and more obvious, Americans remain resistant to decisive and comprehensive action on climate change. In “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” David Wallace-Wells paints a frightening picture of the coming environmental apocalypse. Whole parts of the globe will become too hot for human habitation and those left behind will die of heat. Diseases will increase and mutate. Food shortages will become chronic as we fail to move agriculture from one climate to another. Whole countries like Bangladesh and parts of other countries like Miami will be underwater. Shortages of fresh water will affect humans and agriculture. The oceans will die, the air will get dirtier. “But,” as Wallace-Wells argues, “what lies between us and extinction is horrifying enough.” That’s because, as climate change takes its toll on Earth’s physical planet, it will also cause social, economic, and political chaos as refugees flee areas that can no longer sustain them. If this prediction seems a bit extreme, all we have to do is look at recent weather events that keep breaking records to confront the possibility that the threat from climate change may indeed be existential.

Public opinion on the climate crisis

Yet, in spite of the evidence at hand, climate change remains the toughest, most intractable political issue we, as a society, have ever faced. This is not to say that there hasn’t been progress. In the United States, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions has held steady since 1990–even though our economy and our population has grown But globally, greenhouse gases have increased since then, bringing humanity very close to the dangerous levels of global warming that were predicted. As scientific evidence about the causes of climate change has mounted and as a consensus has evolved in the scientific community, the public has remained divided and large, important parts of the political class have been indifferent. For instance, although 2017 was a year of 16 different billion-dollar natural disasters, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the percentage of voters who were “very concerned” about climate change stayed within the 40% range–where it has been rather stubbornly stuck for the past two years. The following chart shows Gallup public opinion polling for the past two decades. During this period, but especially in the most recent decade, about a third to almost half of the public believes that the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated.

Dramatic and unprecedented natural disasters have had little effect on the public. Following blizzards and an unusually frigid winter in 2015, only 37% of Americans said climate change would pose a serious threat to them in their lifetimes.] After Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma in 2017, concern about climate change increased by 7 points among Republicans and 2 points among Democrats. But in the next year, an August 2018 poll taken shortly after the California wildfires showed concern among Republicans down to 44% and up to 79% among Democrats. In a YouGov poll in the summer of 2019—during record heat waves in the U.S. and Europe—only 42% of the public said that they were very concerned and only 22% of Republicans said that they were” very concerned about climate change.”

If natural disasters don’t affect attitudes toward climate change, partisanship does. The following chart from Pew Research shows the gulf that exists between Democrats and Republicans on this issue.

Chart showing Democrats are significantly more concerned than Republicans.
Source: Pew Research Center.

Republican resistance on this issue is one but not the only reason why, in the face of mounting evidence, the public remains lukewarm on this existential issue. The dire warnings, the scientific consensus, and the death toll from unprecedented climate events have failed to move the public very much. For two years now, the number of Americans who say they are “very concerned” about climate change fails to reach 50%,

Why can’t we get our heads around this?

Given the severity of the climate crisis and the potential for existential damage to the human race and planet, the lack of intensity around the issue is simultaneously incomprehensible and totally understandable. So let’s look at the latter. The explanations fall into at least four categories: complexity; jurisdiction and accountability; collective action and trust; and imagination.


Complexity is the death knell of many modern public policy problems and solutions. And complexity is inherent in climate change. The causes of global warming are varied, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. As the climate warms, it affects glaciers, sea levels, water supply, rainfall, evaporation, wind, and a host of other natural phenomenon that affect weather patterns. Unlike an earlier generation of environmental problems, it is hard to see the connections between coal plants in one part of the world and hurricanes in another. In contrast, when the water in your river smells and turns a disgusting color and dead fish float on top of it, no sophisticated scientific training is required to understand the link between what’s happening in the river and the chemical plant dumping things into it. The first generation of the environmental movement had an easier time making the connection between cause and effect.

We currently attribute greenhouse gas emissions to individual countries under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and we attribute greenhouse gases to their sources within the United States via the Environmental Protections Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. But attribution without enforcement mechanisms is only half the battle–if that. Nationally and internationally there is no legal architecture that allows us to reward and/or punish those who decrease or increase their greenhouse gas emissions. Even the Paris Agreement–which President Trump pulled the U.S. out of–is only a set of pledges from individual countries. Measurement is a first step toward accountability, and measurement needs constant improvement. But measurement in the absence of accountability is meaningless, especially in situations where many people are skeptical of cause and effect.

Another Example

The EU’s top diplomat drew fire on Friday after he dismissed young anti-climate change protesters as suffering from “Greta syndrome” and challenged them to say how they would pay to make Europe greener. Green politicians rejected Josep Borrell’s remarks as contradictory to the European Green Deal — a flagship of the new European Commission’s five-year agenda. “The idea that young people are seriously committed to stopping climate change — we could call it Greta syndrome — permit me my doubts,” Mr Borrell, a 72-year-old Spanish socialist, said in reference to Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish activist. “It is fine to demonstrate against climate change so long as nobody asks you to pay for it.“I wonder if the young people demonstrating on the streets of Berlin to call for measures against climate change are aware of the costs of those measures — and if they are willing to reduce their living standards to compensate Polish miners.”

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