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The Energy 202: 'Year from hell' means more Americans are taking climate change personally, new polling shows

with Paulina Firozi


A pair of polls published Tuesday found broad recognition among Americans that the world is getting warmer after they endured a year of intense wildfires and devastating hurricanes.

Taken together, both polls — one from researchers at Yale and George Mason University and the other from those at the University of Chicago and the Associated Press — depict citizens who increasingly sees the conspicuous effects of climate change around them and takes the issue more personally than ever.

An overwhelming majority of the U.S. public — more than 7 in 10 American adults — acknowledge that the world is getting warmer, according to the two surveys, which were both conducted late last year and published independently of one another on Tuesday.

"It was a completely crazy fluke that they came out today," said Sam Ori, executive director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, which participated in one of the surveys.

The percentage of Americans who say the climate is changing has steadily increased since 2015, the Yale-George Mason team has found. But it is the number of Americans who say the issue is personally important to them that has spiked sharply last year.

A record-high total of 72 percent of U.S. adults polled between Nov. 28 and Dec. 11 by the Yale and George Mason team regard climate change as personally important — up 16 percentage points since March 2015 and 9 points since March 2018. 

"I think we're witnessing a sea change in public understanding of climate change," said Ed Maibach, director of George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication.

The change may be happening because Americans increasingly see climate change as affecting them (49 percent) or their families (56 percent) or their countrymen (65 percent).

There are at least three broad factors that may be behind that recent uptick, Maibach said. One is the alarm bells recently rung by top scientists working for the U.S. government and United Nations. Major scientific reports from them indicate the damage from climate change is intensifying across the country and that the world has little more than a decade to curb climate-altering emissions and hold warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

Another possible factor: Efforts made by President Trump's administration to undo steps to reduce greenhouse gas pollution -- the chief factor in climate change according to scientists. The unraveling of such regulations runs counter to those scientific findings but may be raising awareness of the issue.

A third, and perhaps most important, reason is the spate of nasty weather events in recent years, which include the sort of massive wildfires in the western United States and intense hurricanes in the Atlantic that many climate scientists expect to become more common in a warming world. 

"2018 was the year from hell in terms of extreme weather events and the number of Americans harmed by them," Maibach said.

Lending credence to that notion is the other poll, from the University of Chicago and the Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Among the respondents to that survey who said they found the science of man-made climate change more convincing than they did five years ago, three-quarters said recent hurricanes, floods, droughts and unusual heat influenced their views.

"The biggest driver by a wide margin is the extreme weather over the last several months," Ori said. "The wildfires in California were actually ongoing during the period when the poll was taken" in mid-November.

But that survey, like others, identified the typical cleavages on the issue along party lines that historically have made passing climate legislation difficult. Eighty-six percent of self-identified Democrats said they recognize climate change is happening, compared to 70 percent of independents and 52 percent of Republicans.

That greater concern about climate change identified in both surveys is a return to the past. In November 2008, when Barack Obama was first elected to the White House, 70 percent of Americans said the issue of global warming was personally important to them.

It was only when Democrats tried to pass cap-and-trade legislation aimed at addressing greenhouse gas emissions that that concern plummeted by 14 points by 2010.



— The Senate has scheduled floor time Thursday for a pair of votes on dueling proposals to end the partial government shutdown, though The Post’s Erica Werner, John Wagner and Jeff Stein report that neither measure looks likely to win the support of 60 senators. One bill, Trump’s proposal, "would open the government through Sept. 30 while providing $5.7 billion for a border wall and giving temporary deportation protections to about 1 million unauthorized immigrants." The other, from Democrats, would reopen the government until Feb. 8 without wall money, giving both sides time to negotiate. 

Meetings canceled: A bomb technician for the FBI said the ongoing impasse has halted agency’s efforts aimed at protecting oil and gas pipelines. “This week I was scheduled to make a three-hour drive…to meet with a group of oil and gas pipeline representatives…. It is not secret that pipeline operators and the petroleum industry at large are past and likely future targets for criminal actors,” the technician is quoted as saying in a new report from the FBI Agents Association on the shutdown’s impact. “Some of those actors may use methods that require a bomb technician…. My attendance at this event was cancelled, in part, due to the cost of fueling my vehicle.”

“Gaming the system”: Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an environmental advocacy group, is calling on the Government Accountability Office to probe whether the Interior Department’s move to recall furloughed staff to move forward with oil and gas leasing work violates the law. “Interior appears to be gaming the system to circumvent the shutdown,” PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said in a statement. “We are asking GAO to determine whether these staff re-calls represent decisions by [Acting Secretary David Bernhardt]’s to cater to the desires of certain special interests in violation of the letter and intent of the Antideficiency Act…At this moment, GAO is the only official watchdog left in town.”

British naturalist Sir David Attenborough expressed hope for a world with “clean air and water” at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Jan. 21. (Video: Reuters)

— “The Garden of Eden is no more”: British naturalist Sir David Attenborough spoke on climate change while accepting the Crystal Award at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, urging people to “move beyond guilt or blame and get on with the practical tasks at hand," The Post’s Kayla Epstein reports.

Seismic blasts (Video: Scripps Institute of Oceanography)

— The oceans are getting louder: Increased traffic in the world's oceans and activity underwater is having an effect on marine animals, impacting their hearing and drowning out communication critical to survival, the New York Times reports. And the Trump administration’s plans to allow more offshore oil and gas drilling may increase that noise.

“The prospect of incessant underwater sonic tests is the latest example cited by environmentalists and others of the growing problem of ocean noise, spawning lawsuits against some industries and governments as well as spurring more research into the potential dangers for marine life,” the Times writes. “Some scientists say the noises from air guns, ship sonar and general tanker traffic can cause the gradual or even outright death of sea creatures, from the giants to the tiniest — whales, dolphins, fish, squid, octopuses and even plankton. Other effects include impairing animals’ hearing, brain hemorrhaging and the drowning out of communication sounds important for survival, experts say.”


— Monetizing climate change: New corporate disclosures offer a peek into how some companies are readying for climate change — both its downsides and potential upsides when it comes to making money. The United Kingdom-based nonprofit CDP examined disclosure documents from more than 7,000 companies and released grades for awareness of the issue of climate change and how they’re progressing toward certain goals, Bloomberg News reports, and found 30 U.S.-based companies got “A” grades, which was the most of any country.

Wells Fargo, for one,  sees "opportunity to provide financing" for those rebuilding after "climate-change induced natural disasters." And Apple, one of the companies that received an “A” from CDP, predicts global warming may lead to higher sales of iPhones, which can “serve as a flashlight or a siren; they can provide first aid instructions; they can act as a radio; and they can be charged for many days via car batteries or even hand cranks.’’



  • Johns Hopkins University’s China Studies and Energy, Resources & Environment Programs holds a forum on sustainable transport and urban prosperity in China.

Coming Up

  • The Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy is scheduled to hold a call on energy efficiency and resiliency on Thursday.
  • The United States Energy Association holds its annual State of the Energy Industry Forum on Thursday.
  • The World Resources Institute is scheduled to hold an event on driving equitable climate transitions on Jan. 31.

— 66 days later: After more than two months of darkness, the sun will rise Wednesday in Utqiagvik in Alaska, the northernmost town in the country, Matthew Cappucci reports for The Post.

Via Brian Brettschneider, a climate scientist in Anchorage