Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in an edition of NOVA’s email newsletter, NOVA Lens, and has now been repurposed for NOVA Next. Sign up for NOVA Lens here (select “NOVA Newsletters”).
A major new survey about attitudes toward climate change in the U.S. is giving experts and policymakers a chance to breathe a sigh of relief—and think about next steps.
Conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, the survey found that 73 percent of Americans—a record high and a jump of 10 percentage points since 2015—believe global warming is real and is happening. In addition, 72 percent say that the issue of climate change is personally important to them, and 86 percent don’t think it’s too late to do something about it.
The results, based on a nationally representative online survey of 1,114 American adults aged 18 or older, signal a shift in collective mindset—both in level of awareness and general public sentiment—regarding climate change. Reflected in the survey are feelings of worry and distress, but also of optimism and hope. Overall, though, the findings show that national comprehension of climate change as an urgent problem is very much on the rise.
“The battle for public opinion of climate change is over,” says Matthew Nisbet, a professor of communication studies and an affiliate professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University. “Environmentalists and scientists and their allies have won.”
Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale program, says his team was particularly astonished by the statistic that 29 percent of Americans are “very worried” about climate change. That’s an eight-point increase since March 2018. “When you’re tracking overall changes in public opinion, they generally just don’t change that much,” Leiserowitz says. Since 2008, according to Leiserowitz, surveys indicated that climate change felt “psychologically distant” to most people—that it was something happening in the Arctic, or to other communities… or that it was still on the horizon, waiting to unfold.
But the new survey marks a dramatic shift. “Americans are increasingly coming to understand that climate change is here and now,” Leiserowitz says. He attributes these post-March 2018 upswings in part to extreme weather events, as well as journalists’ references to climate change in news reports about those events.
Unlike a specific flood or drought, “you cannot directly experience global climate change,” he says. “When the media does not report climate change, it’s literally out of sight and out of mind. The media is just beginning to connect that dot for [the public].”
Sunshine Menezes, executive director of the University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Institute, points out that, despite the positive trends the survey highlights, about a quarter of the survey respondents do not attribute climate change to human activity. “That is such a fundamental component to determining how to address climate change issues,” she says. “And it isn’t a secret. The ways to address climate change are pretty clear, it’s just that they require a lot of sacrifice in many ways.”
Furthermore, only one in five respondents (20 percent) understand how strong the scientific consensus is—specifically, that at least 90 percent of climate scientists have concluded that anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming is happening. According to Menezes, this “speaks to a lack of understanding of the scientific process… of the building, iterative nature of scientific understanding.”
Still, “there’s a lot of hopeful news in this report,” she says. “I was really excited about the specific emotions that people are feeling. Around 70 percent of people are ‘interested’ in climate change and about 50 percent are ‘disgusted’ or feel ‘helpless.’ While disgusted and helpless have very negative connotations, there’s an opportunity to move 50 percent of the population toward something that is more positive and more action-oriented. This is a huge opportunity for engagement.”
Likewise, Nisbet says he’ll be eager to witness the survey’s more tangible outcomes. “The polling is just one piece of societal information about what’s happening,” he says. “We don’t really have good theories of change or models as to how public opinion translates into policy action.”
Bryan Walsh, a former editor at Time Magazine, is writing a book about existential risk that touches on topics like climate change and nuclear war. He had just listened to this week’s Doomsday Clock announcement before NOVA Lens spoke with him. He says that unlike the Doomsday Clock’s focus on imminent threats like nuclear war, which could throw the planet into catastrophe quite quickly, climate change is a future-focused danger. And the latter type of risk is more difficult for humans to wrap their minds around.
“We are really bad at talking about and acting on the future—not just as the country, but as individuals,” Walsh says. If you put someone in an MRI, he says, and ask them to think about themselves in the future, most people identify less with their future self than they do with their present self.
“Hopefully we’ll find answers that make that problem easier,” Walsh says. “If not, then we’re faced with really severe challenges—especially for our children, grandchildren, and further on.”