Two Steps Forward

Earth Day and the polling of America 2019

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Adapted from the GreenBuzz weekly newsletter. Subscribe here.

April is upon us, and among the things springing forth is the annual crop of public opinion polls tracking Americans’ attitudes on environmental issues.

This year, I’ve resurrected what used to be an annual exercise for me, at least between 2007 and 2015: Combing the latest surveys to glean insights about how public attitudes on environmental issues, and climate change in particular, may be shifting.

Why did I stop? The survey results became numbingly repetitive: Yes, most Americans are concerned about air and water quality, climate change and other issues. Yes, they want to work for and buy from companies that they perceive to be proactive on these issues. Yes, they are willing to make personal changes in the name of protecting the planet. But no, they don’t want to pay more or suffer (m)any inconveniences when doing so.

In the run-up to this month’s 49th annual Earth Day commemoration, I dipped my editorial toe back in these waters, digging through the past six months or so of polling to see where we are.

These days, there are fewer polls to choose from. Over the past few years, what had been a bumper crop — a dozen or more environmental polls from organizations large and small — has withered to relatively slim pickings, as polling organizations, and the corporate and media sponsors that sponsor them, seem to have moved on to other social and political issues. But there’s still a decent number from which to sample, nearly all of which focus on climate and energy topics.

Here are the takeaways, 2019 edition.

Climate concern is rising

One environmental polling stalwart is Gallup, which has fielded an annual survey since about 2001. Its latest, conducted in early March and released last week, found that for the first time, a majority of Americans (51 percent) consider themselves to be "concerned believers" in climate change, one of three "attitudinal types" Gallup uses to group citizens on the topic.

As Gallup explains, these individuals "are highly worried about global warming, think it will pose a serious threat in their lifetime, believe it's the result of human activity and think news reports about it are accurate or underestimate the problem." In 2015, just 37 percent fell into that category.

Not surprisingly, attitudes vary based on a range of considerations, with women (55 percent labeled "concerned believers"), those ages 18-29 (67 percent), college graduates (60 percent) and nonwhites (60 percent) falling into that category. And, of course, liberals (81 percent) outnumbered conservatives (25 percent) more than three to one in that category.

Other surveys show a similarly dramatic rise in concern. The proportion of Americans found to be "alarmed" by climate change has doubled in five years, according to a poll conducted late last year by Yale and George Mason universities.

That poll found that Americans are also growing more certain that climate change is happening and more aware that it is caused by human activities. Certainty increased 14 percentage points since 2015, with 51 percent "extremely" or "very sure" that global warming is happening.

Quinnipiac University found similar results: 69 percent of American voters are "very concerned" or "somewhat concerned" about climate change. Voters say 50 to 45 percent, including 65 to 32 percent among those ages 18 to 34, that climate change will have "a significant negative effect on the world" in their lifetime.

It’s not yet personal

The Quinnipiac poll also revealed stubborn ambivalence. For example, 61 percent agreed with this statement: "Extreme weather events in the United States over the past few years are related to climate change." But only 40 percent said they are worried "that you or someone in your family might be affected by an extreme weather event."

That is to say, climate change is a concern, but not necessarily a personal concern.

There’s still ambivalence

More ambivalence, or at least confusion, came from a Monmouth University (PDF) poll conducted in November. Sixty-nine percent supported "the U.S. government doing more to reduce the type of activities that cause climate change and sea level rise," but only 39 percent were confident "in the government's ability to reduce the type of activities that cause climate change and sea level rise."

Climate concern struggles to break through the thicket of other news, notably the daily barrage of tweets, threats and tantrums coming from the White House. And, of course, there are other issues of concern. For example, while climate change has ticked up as a "major threat," according to the Pew Research Center, it is being crowded out by concerns over Islamic terror and cyberattacks.

There’s an appetite for change

The Green New Deal proposed by some progressive Democrats may not be making much progress, but some of its key provisions are gaining in popularity.

Gallup found general support for dramatically reducing fossil fuel use over the next two decades. Six in 10 U.S. adults say they would "favor" or "strongly favor" policies with this energy goal, while fewer than four in 10 say they would oppose them.

Similarly, a poll by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago and the AP-NORC Center found that two-thirds of Americans support a carbon tax if the proceeds were used for environmental restoration, and more than half support it if the funds were used towards research and development for renewable energy programs and public transportation. Fifty-seven percent of Americans said they are willing to pay a $1 monthly fee; 23 percent are willing to pay $40 a month.

Where does all this leave us? Mildly encouraged, perhaps. The citizenry is trending toward climate action, although how much remains to be seen. Some stubborn beliefs — "Climate change is not really happening"; "It’s happening but it’s not caused by humans"; "Taking action will destroy the economy" — seem to be fading, finally. The evidence, in the form of extreme weather and a steady drumbeat of apocalyptic news stories and research findings, seems to be wearing down the resistance. The deniers are finding fewer plausible arguments.

It’s just a start, and a distressingly small one at that. We’ve still got a long road ahead to jolt the public — at least the American public — to take the kind of actions we need.

Still, I’ll take that ray of hope as a harbinger of spring.