WASHINGTON — It’s been more than 50 years since the words “Earth Day” entered the country’s environmental lexicon, and polling data show there is an increasing understanding that humans do, in fact, play a large role in earth’s changing environment.
Nonetheless, sharp political divides and challenges to action still remain. Survey data from the Yale Program on Climate Communication tells a story of change and differences among states.
In 2014, the program looked at a series of questions around climate change including whether people believed “global warming is mostly caused by human activities.”
Only about 48 percent of Americans believe that statement to be true. And at the state level, the idea got 50 percent or more support in only 18 states.
Why does the opinion at the state level matter? Because state sends two senators to Washington and, in 2014, those numbers showed how hard it might be to get legislation through Congress.
New data from last fall, however, shows how much has changed since then.
Asked the same question in 2020, a majority of Americans, 57 percent, said they believed that “human activities” were mostly responsible for “global warming.” That’s a 9-point shift.
And, perhaps even more remarkable, a majority of people agreed with that statement in 46 states. The only places that were under 50 percent — Kentucky, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming — are states with deep ties to energy extraction.
It’s impossible to know for certain what drove that change, but the extreme weather events of the last few years, from hurricanes and floods to deep droughts and wildfires, might have played a role. Whatever drove the shift, however, those numbers suggest it should be easier for Congress to take action on climate change. Getting people to see the world differently is not easy.
That said, there are still some sharp divides in the data when you consider the 2020 presidential results.
The percentage believing in human-caused climate change is quite high in states that voted for President Joe Biden last November. The average for those states, 59 percent, is a big number in a country as divided as the United States is right now. Nine of the Biden states are above 60 percent on the question and no state is below 53 percent.
But in states that voted for former President Donald Trump, the average figure is lower, at just 52 percent. None of the Trump states gets to the national average figure of 57 percent and, of course, the four states where a majority don’t believe in human-driven climate change all voted for Trump.
Those differences matter because polling majorities don’t always equal action and those states are close enough that a vocal minority can carry a lot of sway.
The Yale data also reveal what may be the next big front in the climate change fight. Most Americans do not believe they will be personally affected by global warming, and going state-to-state, the numbers show even less personal concern.
A majority of people say they feel that they will be personally affected by global warming in only two states, California and Hawaii (as well as the District of Columbia). In most of the other 48 states, there is concern about the issue, but not concern that they personally will suffer ill effects.
That’s worth noting because eventually the climate change debate will shift to the question of what’s to be done and the answer will require billions of dollars in federal, state and local funding. And that may be tougher to get out of a public that doesn’t feel it has skin in the game.
To be clear, the numbers here are not necessarily bad news for those concerned about climate change. They suggest that changing attitudes on the issue is possible and it can happen quickly. But they also show that for environmental activists there still seems to be work to be done if the goal is large-scale political action.