More Americans believe in global warming — but they won't pay much to fix it

Most Americans are unwilling to pay $10 a month to fight climate change, a survey found.
Image: The dome of the U.S. Capitol is seen behind the smokestack from the Capitol Power Plant
The dome of the U.S. Capitol is seen behind the emissions, and a smokestack, from the Capitol Power Plant. Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA file

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By James Rainey

Americans increasingly believe climate change is real, that humanity is largely responsible for it and that something needs to be done to fix the problem.

But even as two new surveys confirm the public's growing awareness of global warming, they also indicate that the issue is still not a front-burner concern and that taxpayers don’t want to pay very much to rein in the greenhouse gases that are at the root of the problem.

Adding to the challenge, the federal government remains unlikely to act, with climate-skeptic Republicans in control of the White House and the Senate.

Still, the director of the survey that has most consistently tracked public opinion on global warming said there is reason for hope in the most recent survey, conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

“We know that many people still don’t know what can be done to slow global warming,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale program. “But we are showing they are making progress on some of the early and critical steps — awareness of the problem, acceptance that man is responsible and recognition that there are serious consequences. So that means we are laying a foundation to do something about it.”

The survey, conducted last November and December among 1,114 American adults, showed the most dramatic shifts in public sentiment about global warming since Yale and George Mason began sampling opinion on the topic more than a decade ago. It found that 73 percent of Americans now believe global warming is happening, an increase of 10 percentage points from March 2015. And more than six in 10 now accept the scientific consensus that humans are causing the warming that is altering weather and ecosystems.

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The level of concern increased sharply from the previous “Climate Change in the American Mind” poll in March 2018. About seven in 10 Americans, 69 percent, now say they are at least "somewhat worried" about global warming and 29 percent described themselves as “very worried,” an 8 percentage point increase over last March and the highest level since the surveys began in 2008.

Climate change activists have worried that many people viewed global warming as a future problem, not a current one, with impacts mostly felt in far corners of the globe, not close to home. But the survey found that nearly half of Americans (48 percent) now believe people in the United States are being harmed by global warming “right now.” That’s a 16 percentage point jump since March 2015 and nine-point increase since just last March.

“The thing that is most encouraging in these polls is that they show the public has now become aware that climate change is here and now,” said Bob Inglis, a former GOP congressman who leads RepublicEN, a group trying to persuade Republicans to support climate action. “They understand it’s not decades away and it’s not in some other place. That is a huge change.”

The Yale-George Mason findings buttress another survey, which also found that more than 70 percent of Americans believe global warming is happening and 60 percent understand humanity’s actions are playing a role.

But the survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research also showed that Americans — despite that knowledge — still do not rate climate change as a front-of-mind issue. Health care, the economy, terrorism, immigration and energy policy were all cited before climate change as concerns in the Associated Press poll, conducted nationwide in November among 1,202 adults.

The survey also showed conditional support for taxing carbon emissions and attaching the levies to coal, oil and natural gas. It found that support grew if the taxes went to preferred uses, with 67 percent saying they would approve of the charges if the money went to restore forests, wetlands and other natural features. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed said they would back the tax if the money went to pay for research and development of renewable energy.

But the AP survey also showed that Americans don’t want to pay very much to fight climate change. A $1 per month fee was favored by 57 percent of those surveyed. However, if the monthly charge increased to $10 a month, just 28 percent would be supportive, while 68 percent would be opposed.

The advancing ranks of climate change believers still don’t include many Republicans. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in December found that 71 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of independents believe that climate change is a serious problem and that “immediate action is necessary.” But just 15 percent of Republicans agreed. That position is the same as when the poll first asked the question, in 1999.

Leiserowitz believes that extreme weather, like 2018’s deadly Hurricane Florence, is pushing people to reconsider their views on global warming.

Also grabbing public attention were two 2018 reports that emphasized the urgency of responding to global warming.

In one, an international panel warned of dire consequences if temperatures increase more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The other, issued by the several U.S. government agencies just after Thanksgiving, laid out a litany of ills climate change could bring to the country — heat waves that could make Chicago feel like Las Vegas, warming ocean temperatures that could displace Maine's lobsters and a year-round spike in disease-carrying mosquitoes in Florida.

Finally, Leiserowitz said, President Donald Trump’s strong statements as a climate change skeptic appear to be driving some people in the opposite direction. Having once called climate change a “hoax,” Trump continues to tweet doubts about the seriousness of the problem, prompting fact-checking media coverage.

“It has been shown he is the most divisive president in modern history," Lewiserowitz said, "so when he speaks up in that way, it pushes many Americans in exactly the opposite direction.”