Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – On Earth Day, 2023, big public events were held by activists across the US (and across the world). But activists you always have with you. I joined in picking up garbage along the road that led to our high school on April 22, 1970, the first earth day. The world has become more polluted every year since, and at that time we did not even know about the threat of global heating, which has now come to be a key part of environmentalism.
What do Americans think about climate issues today, 53 years after the first Earth Day?
There is actually some good news in the polling. Jonathon Schuldt, Executive Director, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and Associate Professor of Communications, Cornell University remarks that “Americans’ perception of climate change as a serious, imminent threat increased by 14 percent between 2021 and 2022.” And 60% had said that the climate issue would be somewhat or very important to their vote in last year’s midterms. That factor may help explain why the Democrats did historically well, keeping the Senate and only losing the House by five seats. (Obviously the abortion issue also helped the Dems.)
The Pew Research Center did a poll of Americans last year on Earth Day, which it recently updated. The Pew researchers find that a majority, 54%, see climate change as a major threat to this country. And 61% say that it is already affecting their locality. Since a lot of Democrats live in California and other Western states that have been hit by megadrought, wildfires, atmospheric rivers, flooding, and other climate-related disasters in recent years, the partisan divide on this issue may in part also be a regional one.
Still, we are backward on this issue compared to other industrialized democracies. Of the French, 81% say climate change is a major threat, and of Germans 73%.
In the US, Democrats’ hair is on fire about this issue, with 78% saying the climate emergency is a major threat. Only about a quarter of Republicans agree.
In fact, 59% of Democrats see climate change as the number one most important challenge facing the country, and Democrats generally put it in the top half of 17 issues about which they say they care. Republicans, not so much. Unfortunately, the Pew report of findings doesn’t include independents, who are a third of the population, and who seem closer to the Democrats on this subject.
There are also differences among ethnic groups. Blacks and Latinos are the most worried about climate change and its impact on them, regardless of political party, according to Yale and Cornell soundings.
CBS Evening News: “Climate crisis takes center stage on Earth Day”
About 6 in 10 Americans seem to understand that burning coal, oil and gas produces the greenhouse gases that drive the climate emergency. Some 69% of Americans want the country to be carbon neutral by 2050! That is the announced goal of the Biden administration, unlike its predecessor, which withdrew from the 2015 Paris accord and promoted dirty energy like coal, dismissing the climate emergency as a Chinese hoax.
Still, there is a strong partisan divide, with 90% of Democrats favoring a quick two-and-a-half decade march to carbon neutrality, while only 44% of Republicans support it. Apparently it is popular with independents, as well, so that the overall proportion of the country committed to this ideal is a supermajority.
And the same percentage, about 7 in 10, want the US to make it a priority to develop more green energy instead of investing in fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum and fossil gas. Some 2/3s of respondents want the US government to give companies incentives to encourage them to produce wind and solar power. Some 39% of Americans want the government to actively discourage coal, and only 21% want it to encourage this dirty source of energy.
Alas, the general public does not seem to understand what is needed to get to the goals of which they approve. Being carbon neutral by 2050 requires that we begin getting rid of fossil fuels right now, ASAP. But only 31% want to deep-six fossil fuels completely. So there’s a disconnect between what they say they want and how they think they could get there. Two-thirds say we need a mix of energy sources. Well, maybe in the 2020s. But we need to move rapidly away from coal, oil and gas.
Luckily, in the key demographic of 18-29, the very group that television producers so prize as an audience, it is more like half of people who want solely green energy. Since they are the generation that will have to achieve the transition to carbon neutrality, it is just as well that they seem better aware of what it will require. Among Democratic youths, 62% want solely sustainable energy. But even among young Republicans, 22% back a completely green energy grid.