Americans Increasingly Say Climate Change Is Happening Now

A national survey has been asking the question for a decade. Now, researchers say the country may have reached an inflection point on the urgency of climate change.

Studies have connected several extreme weather events, including Hurricane Harvey's record rainfall in the Houston area in 2017, to global warming. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

"It's when they get the fact that it's not just a polar bear problem, that's when they come to deeply care," said George Mason University Professor Edward Maibach. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Nearly half of Americans say people in the United States are being harmed by global warming "right now"—the highest point ever in a decade-long national survey called Climate Change in the American Mind.

The climate communications researchers who conducted the survey believe the results released Tuesday mark a shift in perceptions on the urgency of the climate crisis, with far-reaching implications for the politics of what should be done to address the issue.

"For the longest time, we have been saying that while most Americans understand that the climate is changing, most systematically misunderstand it and misperceive it as being a distant threat," said Edward Maibach, a professor at George Mason University. He is one of the principal investigators of the survey, conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

"This survey really was, I think, the inflection point where that has changed," he said.

The researchers' previous work on the survey indicated that Americans view the effects of climate change as remote in both time and location—"a polar bear problem, not a people problem," Maibach explained.

In the latest survey, 48 percent of the 1,114 adults surveyed said they believed the impacts of climate change were being felt "right now" in the United States. That is up 9 percentage points since last spring and double the response recorded for the same question in early 2010.

"That is a major change," said Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason. "And from everything I understand about the social science of how people think about climate change, it's when they get the fact that it's not just a polar bear problem, that's when they come to deeply care. It's when they come to really expect real solutions to be put forward by our national and our community leaders."

The survey also found that 73 percent of Americans say global warming is happening, 62 percent understand that the warming is mostly caused by human activities, and 69 percent are at least "somewhat worried" about it.

A Steady Drumbeat of Evidence

The latest survey was conducted from Nov. 28 to Dec. 11, right after two major climate reports hit the news: the National Climate Assessment, released on Nov. 23, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report on the consequences of warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius.

It also came at the tail end of a year that saw more mainstream news reporting about climate change in connection with the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history and the extreme rainfall and damage in the Southeast from Hurricanes Florence and Michael.

Chart: Nearly Half of Americans Think Global Warming Is Harming People in the U.S. 'Right Now'

Since then, there has been a steady drumbeat of studies, including major assessments by the United Nations and U.S. science agencies.

On Tuesday, researchers reported that ice loss on Greenland has been accelerating and may have reached a "tipping point." That followed on the heels of studies showing that ice loss in Antarctica has accelerated, increasing the risk of rapid sea level rise; that vast areas of permafrost have warmed significantly on a global scale over the past decade; and that the warming of the world's oceans has also accelerated.

Why Are Views Changing?

But the shifting public perceptions in the U.S. may have their origins closer to home. Some clues can be found in a separate study that the Yale and George Mason researchers released last week, Maibach said.

The researchers found that 8 percent of the Americans they surveyed between 2011 and 2015 had responded that they had recently changed their views on global warming—the vast majority of them becoming more concerned. The most frequent reason for altering their views: Personal experience of climate impacts, reported by 21 percent of those who had become more concerned on climate. Another 20 percent said they felt they had become "more informed" or were "taking it more seriously."

The authors expect to release another analysis next week that delves more deeply into the political implications of the results, including a breakdown of the results by political party. The project's previous research has shown not only strong partisan polarization, but also big differences in climate change views between the conservative and liberal wings of both parties.

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