Climate change is hitting close to home for nearly 2 out of 3 Americans, poll finds

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At the end of the hottest month on record, which left millions in the United States sweltering under heat advisories, nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults say that climate change is noticeably affecting their local communities, and a majority also see climate change as causing serious effects right now, according to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

“People see that climate change is already a threat and will continue to be a growing threat in the future, and they support changes to keep people safe and prepared, especially on the local level,” said Bernadette Woods Placky, chief meteorologist at Climate Central, an independent research and communication organization.

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Graphic by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

Human-driven global warming has long been a divisive issue in the U.S., thanks in part to decades of polarizing messaging from industry, political figures and others. As the world experiences extreme heat and other climate change-driven events with increasing frequency, people’s views on what’s happening still vary widely, and often according to their political alignments.

Most Democrats — 87 percent — think climate change is a major threat. That’s compared to around a quarter of Republicans and about half of independents.

Slightly more than a third of Republicans and independents said they consider climate change a minor threat, compared to 10 percent of Democrats. A third of Republicans said they don’t consider climate change a threat at all, compared to 11 percent of independents and 3 percent of Democrats.

“It’s really hard to bring people on different ends of the political spectrum together on this issue,” said Nan Li, an assistant professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Despite this polarization, experts say there’s room for common ground — and nuance can often be found by digging into people’s values.

Breaking down views on the risk of climate change

Most Democrats – 85 percent – think climate change is causing a serious impact right now. That’s compared to about a quarter of Republicans and a little more than half of independents, according to the latest poll. People are also politically divided over the question of whether they think climate change will eventually have an effect, or whether it ever will.

Just under a third of Republicans and independents think the impact of climate change won’t happen until sometime in the future, while just 12 percent of Democrats share that view.

A little less than half of Republicans think climate change won’t have a serious impact at all, compared to 16 percent of independents and 3 percent of Democrats.

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Graphic by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

While political affiliation offers one lens to explore differences in viewpoints, there are also some interesting divisions by gender.

  • Among Republican men, 17 percent said that climate change is causing a serious impact right now.
  • 31 percent of Republican women saw it that way.
  • 5 percent of Republican women said they were unsure about the broader question of climate change’s impact (or lack thereof), compared to 0 percent of Democrat men and women, as well as Republican men.

READ MORE: 80 percent of humans on Earth had hotter July due to climate change, scientists find

Women are generally more concerned about the environment compared to men, Li said. That rang true in this poll overall, too: 59 percent of women said that climate change is currently causing a serious impact, compared to 49 percent of men.

Risk perception is a big deal when it comes to climate change because if people don’t see it as a threat in the first place, they won’t be motivated to do anything about it, said Brianne Suldovsky, associate professor of communication at Portland State University. She noted that trying to convince people that climate change is a threat often backfires, which is why she says it can make sense to sidestep that debate altogether.

“There is a huge opportunity here to engage folks who don’t see climate change as a threat in different ways and [engage] them about local environmental issues they care about,” she said.

Concern about economic growth has risen

A majority of Americans support addressing climate change, even at the risk of slowing economic growth. But that perspective is slightly less common than it was about five years ago, and some signs point to escalating economic anxiety.

  • 53 percent of U.S. adults said in this poll that tackling climate change should take priority.
  • 44 percent said that they agree with the idea that economic growth should be more important, even at the risk of ignoring climate change. A smaller portion of people — slightly more than a third — shared that view in 2017 and 2018.
  • Nearly three-quarters of Republicans opted to prioritize economic growth over climate.

With rising costs for necessities like rent and groceries amid years of sustained high inflation, people’s everyday lives may be more directly affected by economic realities today than they were five or six years ago, Suldovsky said.

READ MORE: An inflation gauge closely tracked by the Fed falls to lowest level in 2 years

But climate change and the economy aren’t opposing issues – they are intertwined. Edward Maibach, who directs the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, said that his organization’s polling data suggests that most people don’t view climate action and economic growth as a binary.

The consequences of a warming planet — including increasingly frequent, costly events like floods and wildfires — are associated with major fiscal damage. The UN chief and economic institutions have said shifting toward a more sustainable economy could also offer new job and growth opportunities.

Will Namyniuk, a North Dakota resident who identifies with Republican views, doesn’t think that climate change will have a serious impact, and said he hasn’t noted any local effects. At the same time, he doesn’t see a one-or-the-other choice between climate change and the economy.

Namyniuk supports transitioning toward clean energy, but he expressed concern over the potential consequences of a too-fast phasing out of fossil fuels, like jeopardizing the job security of workers in the industry.

People are seeing climate change play out in their communities

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Graphic by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

Just under two-thirds of people said that they think climate change is currently affecting their local community to a notable degree. Among that portion of respondents, there was notable variation based on gender, race and income.

  • 68 percent of women said in this poll that climate change is affecting their community either a great deal or some, compared to 55 percent of men.
  • 70 percent of non-white people shared that view, compared to 57 percent of white people.
  • 66 percent of people with household incomes below $50,000 said the same, compared to 59 percent of those with incomes above that threshold.

Systemically disadvantaged groups, including Black, Indigenous and other communities of color in addition to those that are low-income, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Those who have more financial resources may not believe it affects their communities as much “compared to people who make less money, who live in places without things like air conditioning and who are more susceptible to those climate extremes,” Suldovsky said.

People who live in big cities were more likely to say that climate change is affecting their communities a great deal or somewhat, compared to those in rural areas, a split that Suldovsky said could in part be informed by political differences.

Views also vary by region. 63 percent of people in the Northeast said they think climate change is a major threat. That’s compared to 58 percent of people in the West, 56 percent of people in the Midwest and 51 percent of people in the South.

WATCH: How urban heat islands make the impacts of excessive heat worse

Local impacts of climate change can vary widely. Stephanie White, a Pittsburgh resident and Democrat, said she’s seen more extreme weather in her community, including hotter summers and more severe flooding. A few years ago, she said, someone who lives in a nearby neighborhood drowned in a flash flood.

Robert Romero, who lives in Manhattan and is an independent, said he’s noticed a range of local effects, including rising river levels in the waters that surround his borough. He also said that heat, humidity and air quality are all worse now compared to several decades ago.

The reality is that climate change is in full swing, and we’re on track to see more of its consequences for decades to come. Suldovsky emphasized the importance of preserving empathy for people with whom we disagree.

“Climate change being politicized makes it so much harder because then our beliefs about climate change are connected to our identities and our in-group versus out-group perceptions,” Suldovsky said. “So we are always going to be processing information in a way that confirms our previously held beliefs.”

But that doesn’t mean we need to spend more time arguing over the facts — Suldovsky said it’s not necessary to convince everyone that climate change is happening in order to address it. A better goal, she said, is identifying shared values and environmental issues, especially local ones, that people with different views can find common ground on and work together to solve.

The PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist Poll conducted a survey between July 24 and July 27 that polled 1,285 U.S. adults with a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points and 1,165 registered voters with a margin of error of 3.8 percentage points.

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