Climate and Environment
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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The strong winds of climate change have failed to move the opinions of many Americans

Most believe global warming is a problem, but the partisan divide is growing

Protesters demonstrate at the U.N. climate summit known as COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 11. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Even as windstorms became more powerful, wildfires grew more deadly and rising seas made damaging floods more frequent, Americans’ views about the threat of global warming over the past few years remain largely unchanged, a Washington Post-ABC News poll finds.

A clear majority of adults say that warming is a serious problem, but the share — 67 percent — is about the same as it was seven years ago, when alarms raised by climate scientists were less pronounced than they are now.

The poll, released Friday, also finds that the partisan divide over the issue has widened. The proportion of Democrats who see climate change as an existential threat rose by 11 points to 95 percent over seven years. The increase was driven partly by Black Americans, who are now more likely to say the issue is very serious.

Read Post-ABC poll results

“I guess I worry about the future, and I worry about the effects that climate change will have on the planet overall. I’m confused as to why most people aren’t worried,” said Dorothy Gustave, 39, who is Black and lives in Brooklyn. “Mother Nature doesn’t care about your excuses. Mother Nature will kill you. We need to start thinking about ways to fix that.”

Meanwhile, the share of Republicans who say climate change is a serious problem fell by 10 points, to 39 percent, over the same period. The Republican decline in Post-ABC polls tracks with the findings of annual Gallup polls in which Republican concerns dropped after 2017, when Donald Trump took office as president.

Trump doubted the existence of climate change and pulled the United States out of a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the atmosphere to warm. In 2017, 41 percent of Republicans told Gallup they believed warming had already begun. But this year, 29 percent expressed that belief.

Six activists from developing countries share how climate change has impacted their countries and how they would define success at the U.N. climate summit. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

Americans increasingly see climate change as a crisis, polls show

Terry Wright, 61, believes warming temperatures are signs of the Earth entering into yet another climate phase. “If you think in terms of time, geological time, there’s a lot of fluctuation over millions and millions of years, and I think we have that.”

“I think what we’re experiencing right now is a fluctuation that’s not as serious as an ice age and it will go back to normal,” said Wright, a Republican who lives in Central Texas. “It’s like the stock exchange. It will go up, it will go up and go down and then it will go stable.”

Climate scientists have established with certainty that human activity is fueling a dangerous greenhouse gas effect that is melting icebergs, increasing the rate of punishing storms in some parts of the world while exacerbating drought in others. At least three Pacific islands are being engulfed by sea level rise, forcing inhabitants to flee. Native American homes, sacred lands and even gravesites are being washed away in places such as Alaska and Louisiana.

In August, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said humans have altered the environment at a pace that is “unprecedented” related to any time in history and detailed how catastrophic impacts lie ahead unless greenhouse gas emissions are cut.

World leaders are in the final stages of a global conference in Glasgow, Scotland, to achieve that goal. President Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson both addressed delegates at the meeting, warning of dire consequences if nations fail to transform economic engines that cause massive pollution.

The Post-ABC poll, conducted Nov. 7 to 10, interviewed a random sample of 1,001 adults across the country on cellphones and landlines. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 points.

According to the poll, Democrats are ready to heed the warnings made at the climate conference. An overwhelming majority, 95 percent, say climate change is serious and 75 percent say the problem is urgent. Nine in 10 Democrats say greenhouse gas regulation is needed to deal with the issue.

A 56 percent majority of Republicans, on the other hand, say climate change is not a serious problem. About 4 in 10 describe it as serious or very serious and, separately, 19 percent say it is urgent. About 7 in 10 Republicans say climate change is a longer-term problem that requires more study before government action is taken.

The poll asked: “Do you think the federal government should or should not regulate the release of greenhouse gases from sources like power plants, cars and factories in an effort to reduce global warming?” Of Republicans, 47 percent say yes, while 46 percent say no.

Americans who are impacted most by pollution and climate change, but contribute to them the least, are more likely to say it is a serious problem that must be dealt with.

Ninety-three percent of Black Americans say the issue is serious, and 72 percent of Hispanics say the same. That compares to 60 percent of White Americans.

Sixty-two percent of Black Americans and half of Hispanics say global warming is an urgent problem that requires immediate government action, compared with 40 percent of White Americans.

Wright, the Texas Republican, said initiatives that Biden has called for to lower greenhouse gases — more electric vehicles, reducing the use of coal and pushing renewable energy — will “destroy the lives of people who work in those industries.”

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Although Wright says electric vehicles are needed because gas and other resources “are finite,” he believes there “needs to be more gradual change,” saying that “the things Biden is doing right now is going to destroy our economy even further.”

Gustave, a Democrat, took an opposite position. “We need to be grown-ups about this and stop denying it,” she said. “People have like this ostrich movement, butt up, head in the ground pretending climate change doesn’t exist. It’s not going to keep you from dying.”

Climate change won’t end by turning on a light switch, Gustave said. “It’s not like we can say, ‘Hey, technology will save us.’ We just can’t have faith that we’ll come up with a solution in time.” She said she has considered leaving New York because its population density and tall buildings are not made to withstand a disaster.

“I’m worried that the damage will be irreversible.”

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Scott Clement and William Bishop contributed to this report.