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Americans are worried about climate change — but don’t want to pay much to fix it

The rhetoric around climate change is shifting, but it’s not leading to action.

Demonstrators march in Washington, DC in 2017 demanding action on climate change. Polls show that Americans are more worried about climate change.
Demonstrators march in Washington, DC, in 2017 demanding action on climate change.
Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

Several recent polls show that people in the United States are increasingly alarmed about climate change.

According to a nationally representative survey from Yale University and George Mason University, 69 percent of Americans are “somewhat worried” about climate change and 29 percent are “very worried.” These are the highest values since the surveys began in 2008, and the “very worried” category shows an 8 percent jump compared to the previous survey published in April 2018.

“We’ve never seen that happen before,” said co-author Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “My read of it is that basically, people are more convinced that it’s happening and more convinced that it’s human-caused.”

Similarly, a national Reuters/Ipsos poll from December found that 72 percent of Americans consider climate change to be a moderate, serious, or imminent threat.

A big reason for the growing concern is that many of the consequences of climate change have become impossible to ignore in recent years. The United States saw billions of dollars in damages and dozens of deaths last year as rising temperatures increased the damages from extreme events. These disasters helped make the somewhat abstract warming of the planet tangible in people’s minds.

“You can experience, a drought, flood, or hurricane, but you can’t experience global temperatures going up,” Leiserowitz said.

The findings echo yet another national poll from the University of Chicago and the Associated Press this month that found that 71 percent of Americans understand that the climate is changing, and a majority know that humans are driving it. Forty-eight percent of Americans say they are more convinced by climate science than they were five years ago, in large part due to their experiences with extreme weather.

A majority of Americans say they want the government to address climate change.
A majority of Americans say they want the government to address climate change.
AP-NORC/Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago

But how much of this anxiety has been matched with a willingness to act on climate change?

That’s a tougher question to answer, but the evidence so far shows that few Americans are changing how they vote, how they act, or how much they’re willing to pay to address the problem.

Polls keep showing that Americans are increasingly concerned about climate change, but they aren’t willing to do much about it

In theory, a large share of Americans, along with businesses and public officials, support policies to fight climate change. The University of Chicago/AP poll showed that 44 percent of respondents said they support a carbon tax, 29 percent oppose one, and 25 percent said they neither support nor oppose a carbon tax.

The oil giant Exxon Mobil announced it was backing a proposal to tax carbon emissions last year. Several governors campaigned and won in last year’s midterm elections on their ambitions to promote clean energy and limit emissions. In Congress, lawmakers are building steam for a Green New Deal to fight global warming.

Republicans are increasingly talking about climate change as well, with some going as far as to advocate a carbon tax. Even Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee who once said the role of human activity in climate change was “not known,” is now pushing for an innovation-led approach to limit greenhouse gases.

And then there’s acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who has presided over numerous rollbacks and revisions of regulations intended to fight climate change. At his confirmation hearing earlier this month to take over the agency in a permanent capacity, he said that climate change was an important and concerning issue for him.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being you stay awake at night worrying about it and 1 being it occasionally crosses your mind, how concerned are you about this devastating impact on our nation and the world?” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) asked Wheeler.

“8 or 9,” Wheeler said.

“Really?” Merkley responded incredulously.

“There has been a rhetorical shift among elected Republicans on climate change,” said Sam Ori, executive director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. “What’s driving that, I don’t know.”

However, it’s easy to say you’re worried about climate change and rhetorically support policies to fight it. Gauging how intense that concern is among the general public and whether it will lead to anything more meaningful is a bigger challenge. Are people genuinely worried, or is it just fashionable to say that climate change is a problem?

“To me, that’s a really fundamental question,” said Ori.

The AP/University of Chicago poll tried to get at this by asking people how much respondents were willing to pay monthly to fight climate change. Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed said they would be willing to pay at least $1 per month, 23 percent said they’d pay at least $40 per month, and 16 percent were willing to pay at least $100 per month.

It shows that a minority of the population is willing to pay the majority of the cost for fighting greenhouse gas emissions and coping with rising temperatures.

But that also means that 43 percent of respondents wouldn’t be willing to pay anything to deal with climate change, a sign of a sharp divide. Ori noted that these differences in the willingness to pay for climate change are very similar to the team’s findings in their last survey, even though concern about climate change increased. So even as alarm grows, action lags far behind.

“It’s kind of astonishing,” he said.

The rise in concern about climate change could be a blip

Robert Brulle, a research professor at Brown University who studies public opinion on the environment but was not involved in these polls, explained that climate change is rarely a top-tier issue. It’s often subordinate to worries about the economy or ongoing foreign policy concerns.

“In comparison to unemployment? In comparison to terrorism? In comparison to war with North Korea?” said Brulle. “Always, always, always, climate change comes at the bottom of those comparisons.”

Right now, the US economy is doing well and US war casualties are rarely grabbing headlines, so there’s more room for climate change in the public consciousness. Brulle noted that before the financial crisis in 2008, we also saw growing alarm about climate change. “We’ve been here before. We’ve had this level of concern before,” he said.

Beliefs in climate change have risen and fallen in the United States over the past decade.
Beliefs in climate change have risen and fallen in the United States over the past decade.
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Concern about climate change then dipped in the following decade. So it’s unclear whether the current level of worry reflects a more meaningful shift in public opinion, or if it’s a temporary spike that will recede as the vivid memories of recent extreme weather events fade and other anxieties loom larger.

“If we go into a recession and climate change concern stays up, then fundamentally, something has changed,” Brulle said.

Another factor to consider is that beliefs on climate change are often closely tied to identities. Ask someone what they think about climate change and it’s very likely their answer will also reveal what they think about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, abortion rights, and marginal tax rates. These issues aren’t directly related, yet they’re often packaged together.

That means swaying public opinion on climate change isn’t simply a matter of informing people about the issue. In fact, research shows that the people most diametrically opposed in their views on climate change are often the most educated and most informed, and trying to correct myths may entrench opinions even further.

And even when minds change, it’s hard to translate that into personal or political shifts. “We call that ‘two-track thinking’,” Brulle said. “People will say on one hand they want action on climate change, but on the other hand, they behave as if it’s not real.”