Americans Care About Climate Change More Than Ever But They Still Don't Want to Pay For It

Photo: AP

After years of being battered by hurricanes, wildfires, and heat waves coupled with a climate denier-in-chief, it seems Americans might finally be coming around to the stance that climate change is real and we should do something about it thing. Welcome, friends.

Two new polls released on Tuesday show climate change is an important issue to the vast majority of Americans and many support a carbon tax or other avenue to pay for it. On the one hand, this is good news. Climate change is a real problem we need to address ASAP. On the other, the polling also shows that most Americans still lack a fundamental understanding of just how serious the problem is.

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Yale and George Mason universities have conducted regular climate opinion polling for more than a decade. Their latest poll “documents a continued upward trend in Americans’ concern about global warming.” Seventy-two percent of poll respondents said climate change is “personally important,” which marks all-time high, just beating the result of their first poll way back in November 2008. Concern had been declining since then until getting a Trump bump (more on that in a second). The poll also shows 69 percent of Americans are worried about climate change and 65 percent think it’s affecting weather in the U.S., which makes sense after the past two years we’ve had (and is accurate scientifically, to boot).

“The past five years have witnessed is a sea change in how Americans think about global warming, and I expect the trend toward increasing concern will continue into the future,” Ed Maibach, the head of the George Mason Center on Climate Change Communication, told Earther. “Americans have been subjected to an aggressive climate change disinformation campaign for decades now, but it has been especially aggressive over the past decade. The fact that most Americans can see the effects of climate change with their own eyes is one of the reasons why more and more Americans are seeing the disinformation campaign for what it is, an effort to deceive us.”

Having a president who denies climate change has also swayed public opinion. The high polarization Trump has helped create may be inadvertently swinging some people away from his backasswards views, according to previous research.

In separate polling, the AP and University of Chicago found similarly high percentages of Americans accept the science of climate change and among those who have become more convinced, the wild weather weather of recent years has played a major role. That same poll also asked if people supported a carbon tax and found roughly two-thirds did if it was used to restore the natural world. The number decreased when respondents were presented with other alternative uses for the revenue like investing in renewables, reducing the deficit, or providing a rebate to all Americans.

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The latter is in vogue right now with a small faction of current and former Republican representatives who support climate action, and the low polling numbers may help explain why their plan has gotten almost exactly zero traction. Progressive groups have been decidedly lukewarm on a carbon tax or even committing to it being part of a Green New Deal (a concept which Americans love).

Overall, these polling results are good stuff. People get climate change is an issue, they want to address it. But there is a serious lack of understanding on how serious the issue is or what it will take. Using a carbon tax to restore nature sounds nice, but it is not going to yield the type of climate dividends of that, say, reinvesting that tax money in the aforementioned renewables would.

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The same poll also asks if people would be willing to pay a steady fee on their utility bill. At 57 percent, most folks would fork over a dollar a month. But ask for $10 per month—cheaper than Netflix!—and support drops to just 28 percent and dwindles from there.

These kinds of responses reveal the limits of what people are willing to do and and underscore a lack of urgency. Addressing climate change will require a systematic overhaul of the entire economy, and a dollar per month fee to combat it is laughably low. So even though people are grasping the basic realities of climate change, there’s still a ways to go to convey the urgent need for action.

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