What Americans Really Think About Climate Change

We’re facing a week with three environmental news pegs: It’s Earth Day, the March for Science is today, and senior advisors at the White House will soon meet to decide whether the United States will remain in the Paris Agreement.

Because of all three, you will probably soon hear about a number of new and old polls about climate change and the American public.

If you care about climate change, they will be frustrating.

These polls often find that most Americans are worried about climate change. (Six out of 10 Americans are “worried,” according to Yale.) Depending on how firms ask the question, they sometimes even find a majority of Americans are concerned. (Pew finds 45 percent are “worried a great deal”; the same Yale poll found only 20 percent were “very worried.”)

When you start proposing hypothetical policies, the numbers often fall. (Fifty percent of Americans support or strongly support a carbon tax, according to a study from the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College.) But when policies aren’t hypothetical—when they’re the status quo—Americans line up behind them. (Almost 70 percent support former President Obama’s Clean Power Plan; roughly the same number want the United States to stay in the Paris Agreement.)

If you include a partisan watchword in a question, people start answering through a different frame. They give the answer that matches their affiliation—their societal “team”—even if they may harbor doubts about it. There is a vast partisan disagreement, for instance, on the question of whether scientists near-unanimously agree that human industrial activity is causing global warming. (They do; nearly every study finds unanimity on this issue among scientists. But only 13 percent of self-identified conservative Republicans think that’s the case, as compared to 55 percent of liberal Democrats.)

When you leave partisan politics, however, larger majorities appear. Eighty-nine percent and 83 percent of Americans, respectively, support building more solar and wind plants.

When you hear these numbers, they can prompt a certain amount of internal wailing. The Earth is dying. The science is clear. It’s so easy and obvious. So why can’t politicians ​understand that?

The wailing is justified, but also exhausting. The entire story of the issue—from the presentation of the polling data, to the it’s-so-obvious messaging deployed around it, to the frustration vented on social media—seems designed to get people to burn out. And keeping up with all the micro-swings in the polling—concern about climate change is up two percentage points this year!—can seem equally enervating.

Yet there’s little reason to constantly follow the micro-trends in polling, especially the ticks up and down in reported concern. Climate change is a “stuck” issue in American politics. The polling continually points to a larger conclusion: Global warming is a highly partisan issue that most…

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