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Only 40% of US Voters Think Climate Change Is "Very Important"

A survey by Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows that nearly four in 10 registered voters in the U.S. consider climate change to be a “very important” issue ahead of the midterm elections.

The survey of 908 registered voters, which was conducted between April 13 and May 12 but published last month, indicates that the top five issues for voters are the economy, free and fair elections, inflation, corruption, and social security.

Earlier surveys by Stanford’s Political Psychology Research Group, which runs the American Public Opinion on Global Warming website, have recorded an increase in the number of American adults who think climate change is an “incredibly important” issue, from 13% in January 2015 to 25% in August 2020.

This may not sound like enough support to ensure that pro-climate politicians win elections, but the group’s director, Jon Krosnick, tells Treehugger that voting is often driven by “strong commitments” to particular issues such as abortion rights, gun control, or the economy, forming “a patchwork quilt of lots of little groups of people who are passionate about these various issues.”

Since there are many topics on the national agenda, the fact that at least one of every four voters is “now married to climate change” is “huge” because no other issue consistently has as much of a pull in voting intention, Krosnick said.

Party Divide

Despite an increase in wildfires, droughts, heatwaves, and destructive storms in the past few years, recent surveys show the climate crisis continues to be a largely partisan issue, rather than the biggest threat that humanity has ever faced, as the United Nations said last year.

According to the Yale poll, six in 10 registered Democrats say the climate crisis will be a very important factor when they decide who to vote for in November. “By contrast, global warming is near or at the bottom of congressional voting priorities among Republicans,” says the study.

Krosnick agrees Democrats are more likely to implement climate-friendly policies than Republicans but noted the issue of climate change is gaining some traction among GOP candidates.

But since Democrats and Republicans often enjoy similar support among voters and elections tend to be won by very small margins, those who consider themselves independent are the ones who often determine the climate vote, says Krosnick.
 
Approximately 40% of voters consider themselves independents and many of them tend “to lean in the green direction” when it comes to climate, said the social psychologist.
 
Nonetheless, research shows Americans are not united when it comes to how to tackle the climate crisis. According to a Pew Research survey of 10,282 U.S. adults released last month, 49% of Americans think the Biden administration’s policies on climate change are taking the country in the right direction, while 47% say that the opposite is true.
 
“While the public is divided over Biden’s approach to climate change, a majority of Americans continue to see room for more federal action on the issue: 58% say the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of global climate change, compared with just 18% who say it is doing too much,” Pew Research said in a press release.
 
The Pew study also shows significant disagreements among Democrats when it comes to climate policy. About a third think Biden is doing as much as they expected but just under two-thirds said Biden could be doing a lot more.
 
Biden’s policies somehow reflect this dichotomy. On the one hand, he is trying to push forward with a wide-ranging plan to decarbonize the power sector and increase the adoption of electric vehicles. On the other, in a bid to tame the surge in gas prices, he urged fossil fuel companies to pump more oil, announced a plan to boost natural gas exports to the European Union, and decided to reopen federal lands to fossil fuel extraction.
 
Climate Hypocrisy
 
The Yale study highlights the climate hypocrisy that has prevailed in the U.S. in recent years. Nearly six in 10 voters say they would rather vote for a candidate that supports climate action but only 50% say global warming should be a high or very high priority for the president and Congress.1
 A majority of registered voters say Congress should prioritize renewable energy and they also support other climate action policies such as providing funding to increase energy efficiency and even introducing a carbon tax for fossil fuel companies. And yet, most voters support expanding oil and gas offshore drilling (58%) and fossil fuel extraction in public lands (55%).
 
Although these numbers may be considered “paradoxical,” they suggest that Americans want energy independence, says Krosnick.
 
“[Respondents] are not saying that they want more oil and natural gas in the world. If the question had been asked differently, what you would have found is that Americans want to stop buying from Russia and don’t want gas prices to be dependent on what happens in the Middle East,” he says.
 
And although most voters said they want politicians and corporations to do more to tackle the climate crisis, just 49% said they themselves should do more and the vast majority admitted that they are currently not engaged in political action to limit global warming.
 
Another recent study by Yale found two in three Americans (67%) say they “rarely” or “never” discuss global warming with family and friends and that just 40% of people think that their family and friends are doing something to tackle the climate crisis.
 
The Pew study also found that the fossil fuel industry still has wide support among Americans, with 55% of respondents saying they would oppose phasing out the production of new gas cars by 2035.
 

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