Do Fewer Americans Think Climate Change is Serious, or Is It Nice Outside?

Climate Polling
Do Fewer Americans Think Climate Change is Serious, or Is It Nice Outside?

If pollsters had asked San Francisco residents how worried they were about earthquakes in April of 1906, they might have gotten somewhat different answers on the 17th of the month versus the 19th.

That’s the issue with a headline at The Hill on Monday that blared, “Fewer Americans see climate change as very serious problem: Survey.” This does seem like a depressing problem, if the concern about the globe’s most urgent issue is dipping even as the seas boil and records continue to fall.

And it is, in fact, what’s in the survey: Monmouth polling found that only 46 percent of Americans consider climate change a “very serious problem,” compared to 54 percent who believed that back in 2021. The same eight percentage point drop was observed in Democrats (85 down to 77 percent) and in Republicans (21 percent down to 13 percent), while the fall among independents was even more precipitous (56 down to 43 percent).

Grim! Or, maybe not: the most recent polling was conducted in late April. The 2021 version, where so many more people seemed to consider climate change a big deal, took place in September. Those more or less line up with the earthquake “before” and “after” snapshots.

The summer of 2021 included the unprecedented heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, which killed hundreds of people and which would have been literally impossible without the influence of climate change. Then, at the very end of August just before Monmouth pollsters picked up the phone, Hurricane Ida slammed into the Louisiana coast with 150-mph winds after climate change-juiced rapid intensification, one of the strongest landfalls ever recorded. It caused more than $75 billion in damage, killed dozens, and its remnants spawned a spate of tornadoes further inland that added to its toll.

It wasn’t a fun summer! And that’s the context in which your average person who happens to be willing to answer a random phone call found themselves when asked about climate change — only just emerging from a few months of pain and death and flood and fire.

The latest version of the poll took place when it was just kinda nice outside. With apologies to T.S. Eliot, April is arguably the U.S.’s mildest month, free of winter’s grip, months removed from the last hurricane season and not yet staring down the next, wildfires likely not yet making a mark, and so on. Other parts of the world have already experienced some truly catastrophic heat waves this year, but those are still months away for those answer the polling question.

That question should arguably be asked at the same time every year — otherwise, you’re just asking people who likely have other concerns on their mind whether they’ve thought much about the issue recently, and with the sun and a cool spring breeze streaming in the open window the answer is certainly more likely to be “no.”

It also is a good demonstration of a fundamental problem at the heart of global stagnation on climate action, in that sometimes it’s just not so bad out there. There are nice days. There are entire years where a given location might even see below average temperatures (not many of them, but they exist), or just not experience the big flood, or storm, or fire, or heat wave that would make the “serious problem” numbers tick back up. But try that poll again in September, in the midst of a predicted intense hurricane season and after what are likely to be some of the worst heat waves in recorded history, and you’re likely to end up with a very different headline.

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