While Americans are focused on the pandemic and racial injustice, the vast majority still think climate change is a critically important issue. Americans increasingly believe climate change is real, happening now, and caused by human activity. They believe it will negatively impact their lives and those of future generations if nothing is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to a new survey, a large majority of Americans want to see some form of action from governments and businesses to reduce emissions. And 25% of Americans have become an “issue public” on climate change, meaning they consider the issue of “great personal importance” and are likely to “vote based on candidates’ climate policy platforms.” The issue public for climate change is at an all-time high.
The representative survey of 999 respondents in the U.S. was conducted by Stanford University, Resources for the Future, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental research organization, and ReconMR, a survey research firm. The survey, which has been conducted since 1997, offers a unique perspective on changes in beliefs over time.
Some key findings from the survey:
The vast majority of Americans believe the planet has been warming and will continue to warm
In 2020, 81% of Americans believe that the Earth has been warming over the past century, the largest percentage since the survey began. Furthermore, 76 percent believe the planet will continue to warm over the next century if emissions aren’t reduced. Of that group, 68% feel very certain about this.
According to Alan Krupnick, a senior fellow at RFF, this is a promising development for those seeking greater action on climate change mitigation and adaptation. “That this percentage is so high is indicative of bipartisan support, as the fraction of Americans who are Republicans is higher than 20%.”
Americans blame human activity for climate change, which they think is “bad”
The survey found that 82 percent of Americans believe human activity is the primary cause of climate change, approximately the same as in 1997. There has also been a notable increase in the number of Americans who think climate change is “bad”: 67% of respondents said it was “bad” in 2020 in comparison with 51% in 2012. And when asked a question about a hypothetical future warming of 5°F by 2095, 70% of respondents said that too would be ‘bad,’ an increase from 61% in 1997.
More Americans than ever before think they are knowledgeable about climate change
Since the survey began 23 years ago, Americans believe they have “become more and more knowledgeable about global warming.” This year, respondents who said they knew a moderate amount about climate change was 75%; in 1997, it was just 42%.
The vast majority of Americans think they have seen climate change happening
75% said they have “personally observed the effects of global warming.”
The researchers found that local climate impacts — such as drought, wildfires, flooding, extreme heat, severe storms, and sea-level rise — are indeed changing opinions about climate change.
“In eastern North Carolina, 30 inches of rain fell and major highways were turned into rivers. After the storm, a poll from Elon University noted that 52% of North Carolinians believed that a negative impact to coastal communities from climate change was ‘very likely,'” an increase over 45 percent from the previous year.
A slight majority of Americans think climate change will directly hurt them, and a large majority think it will hurt future generations
Interestingly, just 53% of respondents believe global warming will hurt them, at least by a moderate amount, which is down from 63% a decade ago. Another 28% expect “global warming to help them personally at least a moderate amount,” an increase of 15 percent since 2015.
This indicates that greater communication efforts about the expected impacts of climate change on communities are needed. Any perceived benefits — such as milder winters in colder climates, or extended agricultural seasons — are more than offset by expected negative impacts.
When asked about future generations, 74% of respondents, a clear majority, agree that global warming will hurt them a “moderate amount.”
The vast majority of Americans think government and businesses need to take at least “moderate action” to fight climate change
In 2020, 82% of respondents agree that the U.S. government “should do at least a moderate amount about global warming,” which is an all-time high in terms of public opinion on climate action. Between 35-45% of respondents think the U.S. government, foreign governments, businesses, and the average person are currently accomplishing even a moderate amount.
25% of Americans consider climate change their #1 issue
The researchers found that for most policy issues, there is a group of people who form the “issue public” and consider the issue of utmost importance. “These are the people who pay careful attention to news on the subject, think and talk a lot about it, and give money to lobbying groups to influence policy.”
In 2020, the global warming issue public make up an “all-time high” of 25% of Americans, a large increase from 9% in 1997. This demonstrates that a “growing body of people care deeply about climate change and may be likely to cast their votes based on candidates’ climate policy platforms.”
In an article in The New York Times, Jon A. Krosnick, professor of communication, political science, and psychology at Stanford University and lead researcher on the project, explained that an issue public is the “people who make things happen on the issue.”
Dr. Krosnick told the Times that climate change, with an issue public comprising 25% of the U.S. population, is now only second to abortion, which has an issue public of 31%. The group of people who are very passionate about gun control is around 17%, and capital punishment, 14%. (The researchers didn’t state the percentage of Americans who form an issue public for ending racial injustice).
The research team concluded that “considerable and sometimes huge” majorities of Americans hold “green” views on climate change and related issues that cross party lines. Where contention remains: the exact policies and regulations — the carrots and sticks — to be used to combat the climate crisis.