Climate Anxiety Is Rising in the US — But Not Among Republicans

Polling shows that people in the United States are taking climate change more seriously today than they were five years ago, but views on climate change remain sharply divided along partisan lines as the November elections loom. Concern about climate change remains higher in dozens of other countries, particularly in nations such as Mexico, Turkey and Vietnam, where people are more likely to feel personally affected by climate change than those living in the U.S. — despite record temperatures, widespread drought and a recent onslaught of climate-fueled disasters across the U.S.

Globally, an average 90 percent of people surveyed across 27 major nations say climate change is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” issue, and concern about climate change has steadily risen worldwide since 2014, according to an international survey released this week by GlobeScan. In the U.S. and Australia, 81 percent of respondents agreed that climate change is at least “somewhat serious,” which ranks both countries second to last on the list, just ahead of Russia, where 79 percent of respondents say climate change is “serious.”

In 2015, less than 65 percent of U.S. respondents said climate change is “serious,” and the U.S. has consistently trailed behind the GlobeScan survey’s global average. On average across the 27 countries surveyed, concern about climate change is particularly strong among women, younger people and those with higher levels of education. In the U.S., Generation Z respondents and people living in cities show particularly high levels of concern about climate change.

Meanwhile, last month was the second-warmest August on record globally across land and sea, according to the latest climate data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). Last week the federal agency’s climate scientists warned that 2020 is on track to be one of the top three hottest years on record and has a nearly 40 percent chance of being the hottest year since scientists began measuring global temperature in 1880.

Above-average temperatures engulfed much of the U.S. over the summer, NOAA reports, with August being the driest since 2011 in terms of rainfall. The U.S. saw its third-warmest August on record, with heat waves shattering records across the western U.S and Canada. Six states — California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona — saw a record-warm August. On the East Coast, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts had record-warm summers from June through August.

NOAA estimates that nearly 40 percent of the contiguous U.S. – the land area that makes up the lower 48 states – is currently experiencing drought, including large swaths of the West where drought conditions are categorized as severe or extreme. About 65 million people are experiencing drought across the entire country, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Earlier this year, scientists studying soil moisture determined that much of the western U.S. is experiencing an emerging “megadrought” going back two decades that is unprecedented in modern times, and about half of the drought is the result of human-caused climate change.

Widespread drought conditions are one factor behind the outbreak of deadly wildfires that has devastated large areas of California, Oregon and Washington in recent weeks. Hundreds of thousands of people have had to evacuate from their homes, and entire communities have been engulfed in flames. Firefighters continue to battle at least 27 major fires in California, where a record 3.6 million acres have burned so far this year, according to the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

President Trump and conservative media have attempted to cast doubt on science showing that climate change increases the risk of catastrophic fires and instead blamed forest management and land development practices for the destructive blazes in the West. According to Sara C. Bronin, an expert on land use and climate change at the University of Connecticut, policymakers must consider land management and development practices alongside the changing climate in order to protect against future disasters. The biggest climate threat to communities in the U.S., Bronin said, is political inaction on climate change.

“Of course, land-use regulation is a climate problem; the way that we zone and plan across the country is hopelessly outdated, and in order to stem the upcoming frequency of natural disasters, we need to completely change the way that we regulate land,” Bronin said in an interview. “We need to stop building sprawl, we need our land-use laws to stop subsidizing cars, and we need to make more significant investments in natural infrastructure that will enable the built environment to better withstand weather events.”

Globally, people who live in countries where concern about climate change is highest are more likely to feel personally affected by climate change, including people living in Turkey, Italy, Thailand and, increasingly, India, according to the GlobeScan survey. Mexico tops the list, where 60 percent of respondents said they feel personally affected by climate change. Only 19 percent of U.S. respondents said they feel affected, a higher percentage than in several other wealthy nations, including Canada (17 percent), Germany (15 percent), Sweden (15 percent), the United Kingdom (13 percent) and Japan (9 percent).

In the U.S., perceptions about climate change and the science behind it are deeply shaped by geography and politics. A clear majority of U.S. adults — 63 percent – say they are “worried” about climate change, and worry runs higher in coastal areas, large cities and parts of the country impacted by drought, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. While 72 percent of U.S. adults agree that climate change is happening, they are divided on what causes climate change — only 57 percent accept the scientific consensus that human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels are the main cause of climate change.

Fueled by billionaires and the fossil fuel lobby, climate denialism has been a potent force in U.S. politics for years, arguably culminating in Trump’s election. Trump conveniently ignored the wildfire disasters in the West for weeks before publicly denying the link between climate change and dangerous fire seasons. From his perch in the White House, Trump lent legitimacy to climate denialism, at least among his followers and the Trump-friendly media.

Trump’s impact is reflected in partisan polling. With fires out West and an unusually active hurricane season impacting the Southeast, climate change is now the top issue among likely Democratic voters, ranking above health care and the coronavirus, according to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. Climate change hardly registered among likely Republican voters, who named the economy, abortion and crime among their top issues. Polling from April found that a majority of likely voters support public policies aimed at reducing the effects of climate change, including 71 percent of Democrats, but 65 percent of Republicans say such policies make no difference or do more harm than good.

Considering this deep partisan divide in the age of Trump, GlobeScan’s survey finding that 81 percent of people in the U.S. take climate change at least “somewhat seriously” is significant. Indeed, the survey suggests climate change remains a top issue among people all over the world.

Bronin said there’s good reason to worry. Climate systems are reaching dangerous tipping points. Arctic sea ice is quickly retreating and becoming increasingly unstable, and scientists say the Arctic is currently experiencing an “abrupt climate change event.” Bronin said researchers are increasingly finding that many communities along U.S. coastlines are at risk of being impacted by sea level rise.

“It’s not just wildfires in California or hurricanes in New Orleans, it’s sea level rise on the coast and inland areas, as well as heatwaves and … other natural hazards,” Bronin said. “There’s no shortage of [human]-caused extreme weather events.”