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Americans agree climate change is an issue — but differ on what to do

A new survey found deep divisions over climate and energy policy and differences over how to address global warming. 
A man charges his Nissan Leaf at a CHAdeMO station on March 9, 2020 in Portland, Maine.
A man charges his Nissan Leaf at a CHAdeMO station in 2020 in Portland, Maine.Derek Davis / Portland Press Herald via Getty Images file

Three-quarters of Americans believe the U.S. ought to participate in international efforts to address climate change, but a majority remain pessimistic about those efforts.

A Pew Research Center poll published Tuesday found that 53 percent of those surveyed didn’t think the world would avoid climate change’s worst impacts. That grim sentiment cut across party lines.

“There’s some skepticism that change will be enough to avoid the worst effects,” said Carey Funk, the center's director of science and society research. “That was shared, generally speaking, across parties.” 

The survey results, which analyzed the responses of more than 10,000 Americans, follow a new report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that said climate change is endangering people already and will disrupt food systems, force tens of millions more from their homes and threaten gains in global health unless drastic action is taken.

The survey, which was conducted before Russia invaded Ukraine, shows that Americans are deeply divided over climate and energy policy and differ over how to address global warming as its primary cause. 

Two-thirds of Americans think the United States should use a mix of fossil fuels and renewables in the future, rather than phase out fossil fuels completely, the Pew research says. About 28 percent — including more than half of Republicans — oppose the U.S. taking steps toward becoming carbon neutral. 

The polling suggests that support for renewable energy is dipping among Republicans. 

“We have seen some shifts in the last couple years, particularly since Biden came into office, around support for renewable energy sources,” Funk said. “You’re seeing a downward shift in Republican support for wind and solar power. That was one area where we often saw common ground.”

Average temperatures across the globe have warmed about 1.1 degrees Celsius (nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times, the fastest rate in at least 2,000 years, according to the U.N. climate change panel. 

Global warming has already caused irreversible shifts in natural and human systems, the report says. To achieve a best-case scenario, in which global temperatures would warm to around 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), the world would have to dramatically reduce emissions and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. 

“Incremental change is not going to get us to a climate resilient future now,” said Edward Carr, a professor and the director of the international development community and environment department at Clark University, and an author of the most recent IPCC report. “Our options are going away as time passes, and the longer we wait, the less effective those options will be and the fewer we have.”

Carr added that the IPCC reports to date have been conservative and researchers are now seeing that climate change is accelerating faster than their earlier projections.

Still, Carr said the poll suggests that the majority of Americans have a mistaken impression of the worldwide state of the climate effort. 

Actions taken already, such as transitioning away from coal in the United States, have set the world on a trajectory toward avoiding the worst scenarios evaluated by researchers in previous IPCC reports. 

“We’ve already taken tremendous steps,” Carr said. “I’m a little concerned the narrative of fear around climate change, which grabbed people’s attention, has crossed the curve and become disempowering.”  

There is some uncertainty about that trajectory. IPCC scientists have said they can’t rule out some low-probability, high-consequence events, such as ice sheet collapse or abrupt changes to ocean circulation, which remain poorly understood and could shift the world’s risk. The risk increases with more warming. 

The Pew polling says about 35 percent of adults believe policies aiming to reduce the effects of global warming harm the U.S. economy, according to the Pew research. 

Carr argues that’s shortsighted. 

“People say, ‘Oh, adaptation is really expensive, we don’t want to pay for that,’ as if we’re not already paying for climate adaptation every time we have to renourish a beach or build a seawall or rebuild a coastal town when it gets flooded,” Carr said, arguing that a proactive approach would be effective and avoid “tremendous” costs later.