Skip to content

Climate change opinion moving in the right direction

Yale climate opinion

The Yale opinion surveys show number of Americans who think global warming is happening is steadily rising.

By Flannery Winchester

Each month, Citizens’ Climate Lobby hosts an international call featuring a guest speaker to educate listeners on topics related to climate change and our Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal.

Bessie Schwarz

Bessie Schwarz

The guest speaker for June 2016 was Bessie Schwarz, the Communications Strategist for the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC). She joined this month’s call to share the latest public opinion numbers on climate change — which, it turns out, are looking good. “We’re in a pretty special moment around the climate movement,” Schwarz said. “We just released our most recent survey, and the number of people who think the planet is warming is almost the highest it’s ever been in the U.S.”

And that number? It’s a full 73% of registered voters.

How did we get here?

In order to put that in context, Schwarz took us back to the last time numbers were this high. It was around 2007 and 2008, and Schwarz was working as an organizer in Florida, focused mainly on students in the south of the state. They were seeing tons of motivated, concerned people, and there was lots of climate legislation being introduced in Congress. “We thought that things were going to change,” Schwarz remembered, anticipating a turning point in the fight against climate change.

But soon after that, she said, “The number of Americans who think that the planet is warming and think that humans are causing it and think we need to do something about it plummeted. In early 2010, only 57% of people thought humans were warming the planet.” Schwarz said you might attribute this change in support to the economic struggles starting in ’08, the “Climategate” email release, or even the rise of the Tea Party. But according to Yale’s research, she said, “There’s really only one [factor] we have identified as driving this. It’s actually the partisanship of the issue — it’s the culture wars around climate change.”

She explained, “As we know from studying behavioral science, humans are social. We develop our beliefs, our understandings, based on our various communities, tribes, identities and people around us who we associate with.” So as climate change became a partisan issue, people’s thinking became more polarized, and it began to erode public belief in climate change and support for solutions.

Heading in the right direction 

In the six years since that low point, the numbers have steadily risen back up, first among Democrats, then Independents. “Then most recently, in the last two years, there’s been a huge surge amongst Republican Americans believing that climate change is happening,” Schwarz pointed out. In fact, 29 million Americans are considered “alarmed” when it comes to climate change, and they’re in every county in the country. Even in the communities with the highest number of deniers, Yale’s data shows that there are a bunch of alarmed Americans there.

Another positive sign is that Americans are starting to prioritize the issue. Schwarz pointed to some recent numbers that show liberal Democrats placing global warming as the sixth most important issue to them, accompanied by clean energy and protecting the environment in their top 10 issues. Republicans, too, are increasingly prioritizing this issue — it’s up 20 percentage points with conservative Republicans.

It’s hard to determine exactly what’s causing the shift, but one factor Yale could measure was the influence of Pope Francis. His encyclical and visit to America yielded a bump in the number of Americans who were worried about climate change and fearful that it would harm people in developing countries.

All this increased belief and concern also translates into increased support for solutions, like CCL’s Carbon Fee and Dividend. “Our latest poll shows a majority of registered voters in the U.S. support a fee on carbon and giving that back to households. About 68% of people in the U.S. support that,” Schwarz said. That’s pretty huge, and to Schwarz, all these numbers indicate that we’re in a stronger, healthier position than ever before.

Looking ahead to November

As CCL speaks to congressional offices at this year’s DC conference and beyond, these numbers might get some attention. “Americans are more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who strongly supports taking action to reduce global warming,” Schwarz said. “About 43% say they would be more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who wants to take action.”

And as mentioned above, 68% of all registered voters would support fee and dividend legislation — and those supporters come from both sides of the aisle. “Even Trump voters — about 51% of Trump voters support the policy as well,” Schwarz said.

That’s particularly interesting, given the framework of the upcoming election. “In November, we’re either going to have a strong climate champion or a strong climate denier. What’s critical is that the movement continues to grow these public opinion numbers, regardless of what happens in November.” Because truly, Schwarz said, “Climate change is affecting everyone. It is a major threat facing our future that we all have to focus on.”

And “all” really means all — no matter which box you check come November.

Hear Schwarz’s full remarks on our June 2016 podcast, and follow her on Twitter at @bessieschwarz. Read and download any of YPCCC’s research here.

Flannery Winchester has put her words to work for magazines, for marketing agencies, and now for our earth as CCL's Communications Director. She is grateful to spend every day working to preserve this beautiful planet.