Number of Americans ‘Alarmed’ by Climate Change Rises in Latest Poll

More people say they will vote for candidates who support action on climate change, but the gap between them and those dismissive of the issue has grown larger.

The number of Americans who care deeply about climate action has grown
The number of Americans who care deeply enough about climate change to influence their votes is growing, a new poll says. Credit: Susan Melkisethian, via Flickr

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A new analysis of voter preferences shows more Americans are passionate or “alarmed,” about climate change, with the percentage of poll respondents in this category rising sharply to 17 percent compared to 12 percent last year.

Researchers polled 1,204 eligible American voters four months ago and used their responses to classify what they call “Six Americas”—six categories of people based on their opinion on climate change. These categories ranged from “alarmed” to “dismissive.” About 10 percent of the respondents were classified as dismissive, which was not a statistically significant drop from 11 percent in 2015.

Researchers say there hasn’t been such a wide gap between the extreme pro-climate supporters and climate change deniers since 2008, right after Barack Obama was first elected president. That was also the year they started this analysis.

“It’s really important to recognize there is a lot of wiggle,” said Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication. But Maibach said he thinks—while conceding the data doesn’t prove it yet—that “the dismissive are on the decline and will remain on the decline” and “the size of the alarmed are on the rise and will remain on the rise.”

Maibach was one of the four researchers at George Mason and Yale University who conducted the analysis published online Tuesday. The researchers plan to conduct a similar poll in November after the election.

This study comes the same week Democrats and Republicans updated their 2016 party platforms. Democrats strengthened their position on climate change, including support for a carbon pricing scheme. Meanwhile, Republicans moved in the opposite direction, describing coal, a large source of greenhouse gas emissions, as a “clean” energy source.

The other categories of poll responders, listed by decreasing level of climate anxiety and awareness, include: “concerned” at 28 percent, “cautious” at 27 percent, “disengaged” at 7 percent and “doubtful” at 11 percent.

This analysis shows “how distinct each group is from each other,” said Maibach. He described the alarmed group as an “issue public,” citizens who care deeply about an issue. Other “issue public” groups include gun rights advocates and supporters on both sides of the abortion debate.

The climate change issue public is “just beginning to develop and exercise its political muscle,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change. But this group is “not anywhere close to having the kind of political power as the National Rifle Association (NRA).”

An overwhelming number of the alarmed respondents (more than 80 percent) said their top three voting issues were “protecting the environment,” “global warming” and “developing clean energy.” In stark contrast, these three issues ranked in the top 14 issues for about half of the concerned voters.

As you move away from the alarmed group, “global warming drops as a priority very fast,” said Leiserowitz, who was involved with the study.

All other groups tended to rank global warming as their lowest-priority issue. While there was a wide range in how the middle groups ranked the environment and clean energy, it almost never made their list of top 10 important issues.

The researchers found significant consistency between the way each group ranked climate issues and how likely they said it would influence their voting in 2016. Specifically, they found that most people in the two pro-climate action groups would be more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who supports climate action. Most people in both of these groups also said they’d likely vote for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

The majority of the dismissive members said they’d be more likely to vote for a candidate who denied or doubted climate change and also said they would likely vote for the Republican candidate, Donald Trump.

The middle groups, however, said a candidate’s position on climate would not likely influence their vote in November. Members of these groups were more evenly split on whether they planned to vote for Clinton, Trump or other candidates.

The researchers also asked the survey participants to describe how willing they were to join an environmental campaign to urge elected officials to take action on global warming. About two-thirds of alarmed Americans and one-third of concerned citizens said they’d be willing to join such a campaign, but very few said they were already participating in such efforts.

“There appears to be a lot of untapped potential for climate action advocacy out there in America,” said Maibach.