Climate Change Is a Threat – but It Won’t Hurt Me, Americans Say

Only 40 percent of Americans believe climate change will harm them personally, despite worsening problems with drought, flooding, forest fires and more intense storms. By J.D. Capelouto

Flooded areas of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, August, 2016. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Melissa Leake

LONDON, March 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Seven in 10 Americans believe global warming is happening, but less than half think it will harm them personally, a new Yale University study estimates.

Most Americans, however, are still worried about climate change, and believe it will hurt future generations both in the United States and in developing countries, the report found.

The study, published this week, is part of the Yale Climate Opinion Maps 2.0, an interactive tool based on a 2016 survey on climate change beliefs and attitudes in the United States.

The tool, created by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC), includes data broken down by state, Congressional district, county, and metro area.

The metro areas feature, new this year to the map, suggests that people living in major U.S. cities are more attuned to the effects of climate change.

Residents in cities such as San Francisco, Boston, New York, Washington, and Miami, for example, were more likely to believe that global warming is happening, and be worried by it.

That is most likely due to prevailing liberal political ideology in many urban areas, said Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the YPCCC.

“There’s clearly an urban dimension to how people are responding,” Leiserowitz said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Democrats and liberals are much more engaged with this whole issue.”

Some rural pockets with large populations of minorities — Latinos near the Mexican border, African Americans in the south, Native Americans in South Dakota — also showed high levels of climate change awareness and tended to be more worried about global warming, the map showed.

Yale’s earlier climate opinions study from 2014 found that just 63 percent of Americans believed global warming was happening – seven points lower than the most recent 2016 survey. The 2016 figure is the highest since 2008, when Yale began the survey.

The changing percentages could be the result of a genuine shift in public opinion, demographic changes or model improvements, the researchers said.

In 2014, only 52 percent of Americans were worried about global warming, the study found. By 2016, that figure rose to almost 60 percent.

Less Talk, More Belief?

Understanding the reasons behind the shifts is difficult, but Leiserowitz said he believes some of changes may be due to the fact that right-wing politicians now speak less about the issue of climate change than they used to.

In recent years, “Republicans just stopped talking about climate change. It didn’t get brought up in the presidential campaign hardly at all,” Leiserowitz said. One result, he said, was that “suddenly the Republican base wasn’t being told that this is a hoax” anymore.

Sixty-nine percent of Americans surveyed — as well as the majority in every Congressional district — said they believe the government should set strict carbon dioxide limits on coal-fired power plants, a policy that is in line with former President Obama’s proposed Clean Power Plan, the study found.

President Donald Trump has vowed to repeal the plan, which was aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions and combating climate change.

The survey results “suggest that there’s a large and potentially growing gap” between what Trump and the Republican-dominated Congress aim to do, and what people want, Leiserowitz said.

The study also showed that most Americans feel global warming is an issue that will mainly affect others. Only 40 percent believe climate change will harm them personally, despite worsening problems across the country with drought, flooding, forest fires and more intense storms.

A majority of people surveyed, however, feel global warming could hurt others in the United States, as well as people in developing countries, future generations and plants and animals.

“For many Americans, even those that do accept that global warming is real and important, they still tend to think of it as distant,” Leiserowitz said, both in terms of when impacts will come and where they will happen.

That means, for many people, “it doesn’t seem like a high priority”, he said.

Reporting by J.D. Capelouto; editing by Laurie Goering for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters.