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On Climate Change, America Is Less Divided Than We Think

By Jan Lee

We often think of climate change advocacy as a partisan issue: Democrats believe in human-instigated climate change, and Republicans don’t. Republicans are largely unconvinced that America needs to do anything to stop global warming, and Democrats are the ones with a plan.

Well, a recent Yale study has put that preconception to rest.

It turns out 75 percent of Americans want carbon dioxide regulated as a pollutant, according to a nationwide survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Further, the majority of Americans want the government to regulate carbon emissions from coal-burning plants, even though the feds say they won’t. And 69 percent believe emissions from existing coal plants should be limited.

Whether or not the current administration has any faith in climate scientists, the American public does, at least if this sampling is any indication. More than 70 percent of those surveyed say they trust scientists’ interpretations when it comes to global warming.

But the data that really summarizes what Americans feel about those unpredictable storms and unsettling stories of sea-level rise can be found in two of the country’s largest states, Texas and Florida.

That’s right: Two largely Republican strongholds that repeatedly voted for governors who dismiss the concept of climate change, and voted for a presidential candidate that eschews climate action, may tell us the most about just how we view our role in Mother Nature’s tiff with human technology. And to be sure, it’s not a cut-and dry issue.

In both states, just over half of the population surveyed said they are worried about climate change. In Texas, 68 percent said they felt global warming will harm future generations. But interestingly, only 42 percent of those questioned believe the phenomena will harm them personally.

In Florida, 73 percent of the population surveyed feels they can trust what scientists say about global warming. And over half believe climate change is caused by human activity. But curiously, only 24 percent believe the majority of scientists think climate change is a genuine phenomena.

And as in Texas, the issue of whether humans cause global warming isn’t defined by party affiliation. Florida is a patchwork of perspectives when it comes to climate issues. Even in many counties that voted heavily Republican, residents lean toward believing that humans have a role in their climate problems.

New York Times writers Nadja Popovich, John Schwartz and Tatiana Schlossberg drilled down even further on this issue recently. West Texas communities, where residents overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump weren’t afraid to look for alternative measures to combat drought, the writers found. As in California, Israel and other areas of the world where chronic drought can dominate living conditions, West Texas residents have established systems for recycling their rain water – unlike more progressively-leaning communities in other areas of the state.

The reason for this difference in attitude, say the writers, could be demographics: The young Latino populations in West Texas may be more willing to meet the rigors of climate adaptation than their parents.

But then, there’s nothing like experience to force adaptation as well. Communities in and around the Houston region that voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016 have taken on climate change in other ways by developing mitigation plans that may ultimately help them preserve key industries and infrastructure. As we examined in our earlier post on climate mitigation, Houston's efforts were incentivized by new software and tools that allowed locals to zero-in on climate behavior and fortify their communities.

The same challenges are shaping the behaviors and opinions of South Florida residents, where rising sea levels, polluted drinking water sources and flooding streets are forcing these Floridians to take a harder look at options than, say, inland communities in Florida’s panhandle. Miami-area residents, for example, are the most likely to believe future generations will be at risk from climate impacts. In communities in Central North Florida, while most respondents agreed to some extent that future impacts were a possibility, people were less aware of the risks for their offspring.

This research is part of a large set of surveys (more than 18,000 respondents) conducted since 2008. The information the Yale team gleaned was then overlaid with demographics from Census reports to get an accurate view of gender, race, ethnicity and education. The researchers acknowledge that opinions can change over time, and that’s been taken into account in the survey results.

One additional bit of information they highlighted is the relationship between opinion and communication. The people who were most concerned about climate change and its future impacts appeared to talk about climate change with those around them more often than those who were not concerned -- but not by much. In Monroe County, where Key West is expected to face catastrophic flooding, only 38 percent of respondents said they talked about global warming at least occasionally.

And media reports do seem to matter as well. Although the surveys were only able to capture state estimates about how often people felt the media talked about climate change, the numbers were still informative. An estimated 23 percent of Texans said they heard about global warming from the media once a week or less, whereas those states that reported the highest concerns about global warming, such as California, Oregon, Washington and New Mexico, exhibited higher percentages of people who said they heard global warming mentioned on a weekly basis in the media.

Does the frequency of media discussions affect how much Americans feel we need to act toward a threat? Or do personal opinions determine whether news reports feed us the facts about a controversial topic like climate change? Maybe that’s a topic for another year’s survey.


Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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