Americans care about climate despite pandemic — poll

Source: By Nick Sobczyk, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Americans remain concerned about climate change, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new polling conducted last month.

Public understanding about climate change and the underlying science has remained largely steady over the last year and in some cases reached new heights, according to the latest edition of “Climate Change in the American Mind,” the polling project conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

The survey, conducted as the pandemic was spreading rapidly around the country, found that 73% of Americans believe climate change is happening. That ties a record for the Yale and George Mason survey and tops off a 10-point increase since 2015.

More than 60% said that climate change is mostly caused by human activity, while 2 in 3 respondents said they were either “very” or “somewhat” concerned about global warming.

The poll also found that people are more certain than ever in their beliefs about the issue, with a record-high 54% saying they are “extremely” or “very” sure that climate change is happening.

The results are striking, given that many Americans were out of work or under stay-at-home orders and media attention was focused almost entirely on COVID-19 when the poll was conducted between April 7 and April 17. The poll surveyed 1,029 adults with a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

“To me, it strongly indicates that climate change has, if you will, matured as an issue, where people’s views have become increasingly solid,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “They’re not being blown about by the economic winds or the media winds.”

Researchers noted in the poll’s executive summary that they expected “to find dramatically reduced levels of concern about climate change.”

They found in a separate survey last month that Americans are widely concerned about the pandemic, and researchers expected climate opinion to run into the “finite pool of worry hypothesis,” which holds that people have limited capacity to care about multiple important issues at once.

It’s an idea that often comes up, in one form or another, in conversations about climate change, generally tied to declining concern about climate change after the last recession.

Recent research from Yale and George Mason suggests that declining belief about climate change from 2008 to 2011 was a result of elite political cues — namely, the rise of the tea party movement — and not economic pressures.

But the COVID-19 pandemic nonetheless had many in the climate advocacy community worried about political distractions (E&E Daily, April 20).

Still, while most Americans do not frequently discuss climate change at the dinner table, according to the most recent Yale and George Mason survey, 66% say it is “extremely,” “very,” or “somewhat” important to them personally.

“There was a real concern that climate change would essentially fall off the table,” Leiserowitz said.

The results do not disprove the finite pool of worry hypothesis, but “what we found is that it hasn’t dropped at all,” Leiserowitz added.

“And in fact,” he said, “in some of those same key metrics, like happening and human-caused, it is at all-time record highs.”