Many of the estimates of the long-term effects of climate change focus on outcomes that will be obvious by the year 2100. Climate change isn’t weather change, and the slow warming of the Earth is best measured by changes over decades, not days. That’s been inconvenient for those hoping to draw attention to the issue in an age when attention spans are fleeting and debates are often resolved when one side points to some anecdote as definitive — for example, when a member of the Senate thinks a February snowball somehow rebuts the idea there’s a long-term warming trend.
There are visible effects: rising sea levels, increased precipitation bursts and, of course, the three-year streak of hottest years ever. But one can’t simply point to one thing that happens and say, “That. That’s climate change.” For those disinterested in accepting the scientific consensus on the subject, that’s helpful. A concerted political effort about a decade ago leveraged the public’s uncertainty and our rhetorical habits to effectively blunt policies that would have addressed the issue. That built climate change into a central partisan litmus test. But now, as President Trump figures out how to roll back his predecessor’s efforts on climate policy, something interesting has happened: Gallup polling suggests that Americans have broadly accepted the science — and risks — of global warming.
The number of people who say that they worry “a great deal” about climate change has hit a high in Gallup’s polling on the issue, which stretches back to 1990. Looking at the past 20 years or so, you can see a pattern: a spike in concern after Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and then a sharp negative response. Since 2011, though, Americans have been more and more likely to say they find climate change concerning.
What’s more, there’s much broader acceptance of the scientific realities of the subject. Americans understand that human activity plays a more significant role than natural causes (as brilliantly illustrated in this Bloomberg interactive) . . .
. . . and, as importantly, that scientists believe that this is the case.
A central component of the effort to undercut climate change efforts has been to pretend there’s broad disagreement in the scientific community. This poll result indicates that Americans understand that’s not the case. After a peak in 2010, the number of people who think that the seriousness of climate change is exaggerated in the news has fallen. Now, nearly two-thirds of Americans say that the seriousness of the issue is conveyed correctly in the media — or is underestimated.
Despite the long time frame of climate change’s effects, more than 6 of 10 Americans think the effects of climate change have already begun.
The irony to all of this, of course, is that the country recently elected the most fervently anti-climate change president in its history. After a decade-long fight, those who accept the reality of climate change have managed to convince America of what’s going on. That this one particular man who just moved into the White House isn’t convinced will likely end up meaning that those seeking action on climate change find themselves in a worse position than when America was skeptical but its elected leaders weren’t.