Most Americans now see signs of climate change where they live

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Amid deadly wildfires in California and
increased flooding along the U.S. East Coast in 2019, most Americans say the
effects of climate change are already upon us — and that the U.S. government
isn’t doing enough to stop it, according to a new public opinion survey.

In the nationwide poll, 62
percent of U.S. adults said climate change is affecting their local community

to some extent or a great deal, bringing more flooding and unusually warm
weather, altering ecosystems, driving wildfires or exacerbating drought, the nonpartisan
Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., reports November 25. That’s slightly
up from the 59 percent who said the same in Pew’s
2018 poll
.

“What it looks like is happening is a larger
portion of Americans are accepting that climate change is with us and poses a
hazard,” says Risa Palm, an urban geographer at Georgia
State University in Atlanta not involved in the study.

The results follow
what many environmental activists consider a watershed year for climate change
awareness, marked by student
protests
and a speech by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg
chastising world leaders at the United Nations for ignoring climate science (SN: 3/14/19).

“This study finds
some familiar patterns in the public divides over climate and energy issues,
but also areas where opinion among political groups has shifted,” says Cary
Funk, the director of science and society research at Pew. 

The Pew survey — which questioned 3,627 randomly selected adults from October 1 to October 13 — also revealed how views vary between regional and demographic groups, as well as trends in what people think that action should look like. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.1 percentage points. Here are four big takeaways.

1. People’s views depend on where they live.

Those most likely to report local effects from
climate change lived along the Pacific Coast, which is facing rising
sea levels
(SN: 9/25/19) and has
battled deadly
wildfires
despite electricity
blackouts
aimed at preventing more fires (SN: 11/1/19). Among West Coasters, 72 percent said climate change is
affecting their area either a great deal (28 percent) or some (44 percent). By
comparison, the percent of people living in the Northeast, Midwest and South who
said climate change was altering conditions where they live ranged from 59
percent to 63 percent.

Whether people lived near a coastline also
mattered. About 67 percent of respondents living within 40 kilometers of a
coast said they saw local climate change effects. That coincides with a sharp
rise in tidal flooding
since 2000 along the U.S. East Coast (SN: 7/15/19). By comparison, 59 percent of people living more than 480 kilometers
inland saw local climate change effects, including longer periods of unusually
hot days
, droughts and water shortages (SN:
6/5/19
).

2. Most people think the U.S. government should do more.

A total of 67
percent said the government should be taking more action against climate
change. That included strong support among Democrats (90 percent), as well as a
big jump among liberal and moderate Republicans: 65 percent in that group are calling
for more climate action, compared with 53 percent in the group in 2018. Younger
Republicans were also more likely than older Republicans to say they wanted to
see more action from the government. Views among conservative Republicans on
this issue were only slightly changed, with 24 percent supporting more government
climate action versus 22 percent in 2018.

“If Republican leaders
don’t take [climate and energy] more seriously, it’s possible young voters may
shrug and say ‘OK, Boomer,’ the next time they ask for their vote,” said John
Kotcher, a communications researcher at George Mason University’s Center for
Climate Change Communication in Fairfax, Va. 

3. Most believe U.S. energy policy priorities need to change.

More than
three-quarters, or 77 percent, of respondents said the United States needs to
wind down its production and use of fossil fuels, the source of most climate-warming
carbon emissions
(SN: 7/1/19). To achieve that, 92 percent favor expanding solar
power, and 85 percent want more wind power. Meanwhile, support was far lower for
nuclear power (49 percent), offshore oil and gas drilling (42 percent), coal (35
percent) and hydraulic fracturing, which yields natural gas (38 percent).

The survey “helps
us put our finger on the proverbial pulse of public sentiment,” says Max
Boykoff, director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy
Research at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We
need to understand where people are on these issues, and find that common
ground” to move forward with climate and energy policy.

4. Many say they are taking action by making personal changes.

Citing environmental
reasons, 80 percent of Americans said they were reducing food waste, 68 percent
said they were reducing water use, and 41 percent said were eating less meat.
About half of respondents said they were driving less or using carpools more,
while 72 percent said they were using less single-use
plastic
(SN:
1/4/19
). Across the board, women and Democratic men were more likely than
Republican men to report that they were changing their personal behaviors due
to environmental concerns.

Palm says the fact that many Americans are now “moving in the same direction, making the same assumptions and trying to adopt the same sorts of behaviors” is important for future action against climate change to succeed. “We’re not a society that operates by individual decision-making. We’re a democratic society.”

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