The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans increasingly see climate change as a crisis, poll shows

Lily Schatz, 5, of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and her father, Jason Schatz, join a gathering in Lafayette Square near the White House on June 1, 2017 to protest the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

A growing number of Americans describe climate change as a crisis, and two-thirds say President Trump is doing too little to tackle the problem.

The results, from a poll conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), point to a growing disconnect between Americans worried about the warming planet and Trump administration officials, who have aggressively scaled back Obama-era environmental regulations and relinquished the nation’s role as a global leader in pushing for climate action.

The poll finds that a strong majority of Americans — about 8 in 10 — say that human activity is fueling climate change, and roughly half believe action is urgently needed within the next decade if humanity is to avert its worst effects. Nearly 4 in 10 now say climate change is a “crisis,” up from less than a quarter five years ago.

“I am deathly afraid, not for my kids, but for my kids’ kids and what they will have to deal with,” said Mechaella DeRicci, 50, a respiratory care practitioner in Bristol, Conn. “What are we leaving as a legacy besides a hot mess?”

Extreme climate change has arrived in America

Though Americans are increasingly worried about climate change, fewer than 4 in 10 say they believe that tackling the problem will require them to make “major sacrifices.” And most are unwilling to pay for it out of their own pockets.

For example, while nearly half of adults say they would be willing to pay a $2 monthly tax on their electricity bills to help combat climate change, just over a quarter say they are willing to pay $10 extra each month. And while two-thirds support stricter fuel-efficiency standards for the nation’s cars and trucks, increases in the gas tax remain deeply unpopular.

Instead, clear majorities say they would prefer that climate initiatives be funded by increasing the taxes on wealthy households and on companies that burn fossil fuels.

The Post-KFF poll comes at a moment when the globe already has warmed more than 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, and scientists say the world is heading toward catastrophic effects unless humans act quickly to slash emissions of carbon dioxide. Major nations around the globe, with the exception of the United States, have pledged to work together to combat climate change as part of the Paris accord signed in 2015, but the world remains far off track to meet the goals they set.

Dangerous new hot zones are spreading around the world

The Post-KFF poll also comes in the midst of a quickening Democratic presidential campaign that has featured climate change as a central issue. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), who made climate action the centerpiece of his campaign, drew little support and recently dropped out of the race. But his focus on climate action lives on in the proposals of some of the remaining candidates.

For Trump, climate change also could prove to be an issue, even among his GOP base. Though Democrats and independents are more likely to think climate change is caused by human activity, a majority of Republicans — 60 percent — say they, too, believe that, the Post-KFF survey finds. And 23 percent of Republicans say they disapprove of how Trump is handling the issue, compared with just 9 percent of Republicans who disapprove of his job performance overall.

Tiffany Hickman, 42, vice president and general sales manager for Holston Valley Broadcasting Corp. in Tennessee, is a registered Republican who thinks climate change is real and is linked to human activity. Asked whether she was a Trump supporter, Hickman said, “I wouldn’t say yes, but wouldn’t say no.”

Hickman said she would be willing to pay 15 percent more for electricity to combat climate change, comparing the decision to “buying a salad for $10 and cheeseburger for $3.

“I know which one is cheaper,” she said, “but I know which one is healthier.”

Those surveyed gave Trump’s handling of climate change the highest level of disapproval among six issues measured in the Post-KFF poll, with 67 percent saying they are unhappy with the president’s performance.

In recent years, several other national surveys have found increasing public concern about climate change. The Post-KFF poll’s finding that 79 percent think humans are driving global warming is significantly higher than some recent surveys have shown.

The Post-KFF poll asked for a yes-no response to the statement: “Human activity is or is not causing changes to the world’s climate, including an increase in the average temperature.” By contrast, an April survey by Yale University and George Mason University found 69 percent saying “global warming is happening,” with 55 percent saying in a second question that it is caused mostly by “human activities” rather than “natural changes in the environment.”

The Post-KFF poll also reveals a mixture of optimism about innovation and high levels of anxiety about climate change. Popular literature and films often portray a dystopian future, and many young people wonder whether they should bring children into the warming world. Yet 7 in 10 say it is very likely or somewhat likely that technological advances will stave off most of the negative effects of climate change — even though no large-scale breakthrough is on the horizon.

That belief in innovation is not firmly held; barely 2 in 10 think it very likely that technology will save the day. At the same time, 6 in 10 think they will have to make only minor individual sacrifices — if any — to help combat climate change.

Christa Moseng, 41, a Democrat in Minneapolis, has already made changes in her daily life. She no longer has a car but chooses instead to get around by bus, train or bike. Through her utility company, she pays several dollars extra each month to ensure that her power comes from renewable sources.

“The longer we wait, the more it becomes an insurmountable obstacle,” Moseng said. “We need to deal with it as a crisis.”

The Post-KFF poll underscores a sense of urgency among many Americans. Forty percent of people say action to combat climate change must come in the next decade to head off the worst consequences; 12 percent say it’s already too late.

“There’s real, reasonable scientific evidence that if we don’t make changes within a year or two, there’s going to be irreversible damage,” said Kristen Bailey, 30, a librarian in Macon, Ga., who describes herself as an independent.

Bailey said that she is frustrated by the lack of action in Washington, and that climate will be “one of my top priorities” in the 2020 election.

“We aren’t doing nearly enough,” she said.

Still, many Americans want corporations and the rich to shoulder the financial burden of combating climate change. The Post-KFF poll finds:

● Nearly 7 in 10 say money for climate action should come from increasing taxes on wealthy households. That proposal is backed by 83 percent of Democrats, 69 percent of independents and 44 percent of Republicans.

● Six in 10 favor raising taxes on companies that burn fossil fuels, including 74 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of independents and 39 percent of Republicans. (Respondents were told that companies might pass those taxes along in the form of higher prices.)

● About 4 in 10 support increasing the national debt to pay for programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That support slips to 32 percent, however, when supporters are told that the U.S. government debt stands at $22 trillion.

The Post-KFF survey was conducted online and by telephone from July 9 to Aug. 5, among a national sample of 2,293 adults through AmeriSpeak, a survey panel recruited through random selection of U.S. households by NORC at the University of Chicago. Overall results have a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Edwards Joe “E.J.” Wroten, 64, a former caregiver and staunch Republican living in Arizona, voted for Trump in 2016 but isn’t sure whether to vote for him again. Impressed by photos and video of the melting polar caps, Wroten said that climate issues have risen “toward the top” for him.

“It’s pretty important stuff,” he said. “There is not a lot I can do about it right now. But I can vote.”

Trump does have pockets of support for his position on climate change: About 1 in 4 adults say the seriousness of global warming and climate change is “generally exaggerated.” That view is held by 56 percent of Republicans, 24 percent of independents and 5 percent of Democrats.

Richard Merritt, 53, who is in the commercial shell fishing business in Maine, is among the climate skeptics. While “some things have changed,” he said, he thinks the waxing and waning runs of crabs, clams and quahogs could be just natural cycles.

“I think it’s just Mother Nature,” he said, adding: “I could be way off.”

Merritt remains a die-hard Trump supporter, saying, “I support everything he’s doing.” He said he even has a bumper sticker on his pickup truck showing Trump making a rude gesture toward House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “I won’t get into” it, he said.

The Post-KFF poll finds that about twice as many Americans trust the Democratic Party as trust Republicans to handle climate change, 38 percent to 17 percent. But 35 percent overall say they trust neither party on the issue — a sentiment shared by 56 percent of political independents. And though 66 percent of Americans say Trump is doing too little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, 56 percent say the same about the Democratic Party.

Still, in follow-up interviews, several respondents were particularly dismayed by Trump’s disdain for climate scientists and their dire warnings.

“It’s dumbfounding. Scientific data is scientific data,” said DeRicci, the respiratory care practitioner in Connecticut.

“I’m appalled that we left the Paris climate accord,” she said. “This is beyond urgent. This is the 12-alarm fire that should have been acted upon years ago.”