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Climate Change in the American Mind: April 2020

1. Executive Summary

This survey was fielded from April 7 – 17, 2020, during which time a large percentage of the U.S. population was sheltering at home due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic. Social science theory and prior research suggest that people have a “finite pool of worry,”Weber, E.U. (2006). Experience-based and description-based perceptions of longterm risk: Why global warming does not scare us (yet). Climatic Change, 77, 103–120. such that worrying about one issue will decrease concern about other issues. In a national survey on American Responses to COVID-19, conducted separately from this survey, we found that most American adults were quite worried about COVID-19 in April, and justifiably so given the large number of deaths and serious illnesses it was causing at the time. Given the finite pool of worry hypothesis, we were prepared to find dramatically reduced levels of concern about climate change in this survey. Although we did find a slight decline in the proportion of Americans who report being “very worried” about climate change since our previous survey in November 2019, overall, the results of the current survey are remarkably consistent with our previous survey, with several indicators of public engagement actually reaching record levels. This is not to say that the finite pool of worry hypothesis is correct or incorrect, as we did not formally test it. But what is clear is that public engagement in the issue of climate change remains at or near historic high levels. Specifically, we found:

  • A record-tying 73% of Americans think global warming is happening. Only one in ten Americans (10%) think global warming is not happening. Americans who think global warming is happening outnumber those who think it isn’t by a ratio of about 7 to 1.
  • A record-high 54% of Americans are “extremely” or “very” sure global warming is happening. By contrast, only 6% are “extremely” or “very” sure global warming is not happening.
  • A record-tying 62% of Americans understand that global warming is mostly human-caused. By contrast, about three in ten (29%) think it is due mostly to natural changes in the environment.
  • More than half of Americans (56%) understand that most scientists think global warming is happening. However, only about one in five (21%) understand how strong the level of consensus among scientists is (i.e., that more than 90% of climate scientists think human-caused global warming is happening).
  • Two in three Americans (66%) say they are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming. One in four (26%) are “very worried” about it.
  • About six in ten Americans (63%) say they feel at least “moderately interested” in global warming. Four in ten or more say they feel say they feel “disgusted” (46%), “hopeful” (45%), “angry” (41%), “resilient” (41%), “outraged” (41%), or “helpless” (40%).
  • More than four in ten Americans think people in the United States are being harmed by global warming “right now” (45%) and about the same percentage say they have personally experienced the effects of global warming (44%).
  • More than four in ten Americans (43%) think they will be harmed by global warming, while more think their family (46%) and people in their community (49%) will be harmed. Half or more Americans think global warming will harm people in the U.S. (62%), people in developing countries (66%), the world’s poor (67%), future generations of people (73%), and plant and animal species (73%).
  • Many Americans think a variety of health harms, both physical and psychological, will become more common in their community as a result of global warming over the next 10 years, if nothing is done to address it.
  • Two in three Americans (66%) say the issue of global warming is either “extremely,” “very,” or “somewhat” important to them personally, while one in three (33%) say it is either “not too” or “not at all” personally important.
  • More than six in ten Americans (64%) say they “rarely” or “never” discuss global warming with family and friends, while 36% say they do so “occasionally” or “often.”
  • About half of Americans (47%) say they hear about global warming in the media at least once a month. Fewer (22%) say they hear people they know talk about global warming at least once a month.
  • Fewer than half of Americans perceive a social norm in which their friends and family expect them to take action on global warming. Forty-seven percent think it is at least moderately important to their family and friends that they take action (an injunctive norm), and 44% say their family and friends make at least a moderate amount of effort to reduce global warming (a descriptive norm).
  • Two in three Americans (66%) feel a personal sense of responsibility to help reduce global warming.
  • Few Americans (11%) agree with the statement that it is too late to do anything about global warming, while about two in three (68%) disagree that it is too late.
  • Majorities of Americans think global warming is an environmental issue (82%) or a scientific issue (74%). Half or more think global warming is an agricultural (67%), severe weather (64%), economic (64%), humanitarian (61%), health (60%), political (60%), or moral (50%) issue.
  • Two in three Americans (66%) think global warming is affecting weather in the United States, and one in three think weather is being affected “a lot” (33%).
  • A majority of Americans are worried about harm from extreme events in their local area including extreme heat (66%), droughts (65%), flooding (60%), and water shortages (56%).
  • Majorities of Americans think state and local governments should place a “high priority” on protecting agriculture, public water supplies, and people’s health (all 55%) from the effects of global warming over the next ten years.
  • Six in ten Americans (60%) feel at least “fairly well informed” about global warming, but only one in ten Americans (10%) feel “very well informed.”
  • Majorities of Americans are at least “moderately” interested in news stories about a variety of topics related to global warming.