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Global Warming & the Rising American Electorate

Environmental groups are spending record amounts of money on environment and energy campaign ads this season. Candidates in hotly contested races are using climate change to distinguish themselves from their opponents, even though the issue is not top-tier for voters in the midterms.

An important driver of the prominence of global warming in American politics is how the issue resonates with the so-called Rising American Electorate (RAE) – Millennials (18-to-30 year olds), Latinos, African Americans, and unmarried women, among others. According to the Census, the RAE is a rapidly growing segment within the U.S. population and as a group, the RAE comprised nearly half (48%) of the electorate in 2012 according to national exit polls.

As the RAE votes in growing numbers, they will increasingly replace more traditional types of voters, such as older white men and married women. So what does the RAE think of global warming?

In our Spring 2014 survey, we asked a representative sample of American voters how a candidate’s support or opposition to reducing global warming would influence their vote. While all registered voters appear more likely to support a pro-climate action candidate (45%) over an anti-climate action candidate (17%), the RAE is particularly likely to do so when compared to traditional voters (51% and 12%, respectively).

 

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Uncovering the Truth about Global Warming’s Health Impacts at the People’s Climate March

Participants in the People’s Climate March in New York City on September 21st each came with a message.  Looking across the endless river of people and signs flowing through Manhattan it was hard to absorb the vast variety of communication on display.                                                                                                                         Noticeable though was one young man in a lab coat clutching a placard, “Climate Change is a Health Crisis.” The sign conveys a serious consequence of global warming that few Americans currently understand.

In June, we reported that Americans have not yet connected the dots between global warming and impacts on health.   When we asked Americans in our national survey for their best estimate of the impact on human health worldwide—now and 50 years into the future—the majority of respondents said, “I don’t know.” Only 18% to 32% of Americans said correctly that each year worldwide, thousands will die or millions will become ill, or be injured by global warming.

This understanding does not match up with scientific consensus about the severe impacts of global warming on public health.

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Beyond Partisanship on Climate Change

The visuals at the People’s Climate March in New York last Sunday conveyed more than just catchy slogans and clever words of inspiration. The signs and costumes and floats were messages to the world designed to create change.  This marcher is making a very clear statement that is supported by our findings, presented in our recent report, Politics and Global Warming, Spring 2014.                                                                                                                                                                                                   We find that while big differences do exist between conservative Republicans and Democrats, other Republicans look more like Democrats than their conservative fellow party members on numerous climate issues. Just one example among registered voters: Majorities of Democrats (88 percent) and moderate-to-liberal Republicans (61 percent) think global warming is happening. By marked contrast, only about one in four – 28 percent – conservative Republicans agree.

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Voters Will Support Pro-Climate Candidates With Pledges, Time, and Money

Millions of registered voters  would sign a pledge to vote for, would work for, or would give money to candidates who share their views on global warming – if asked to by a person they like and respect. This suggests that global warming could become a more prominent electoral issue if campaigns engage and mobilize this potential “issue public.”

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How Important is Global Warming to the American Voter?

In our spring 2014 national survey, we asked Americans who are registered to vote how important 19 different issues will be to their vote in the 2014 Congressional election. Here we focus only on those who say an issue will be “very important” to their vote – the strongest possible response. Fewer than half of Americans say a candidate’s stance on energy independence (43%), protecting the environment (39%), developing clean energy sources (39%), or global warming (32%) will be “very important” to their vote.

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Global Warming's Human Health Impacts Poorly Understood by Americans

In our spring 2014 national survey, we asked Americans to give us their best estimates of the impacts of global warming on human health worldwide – currently and 50 years from now. The largest proportion of respondents (38% to 42%) simply said, “I don’t know.” The next largest proportion (27% to 39%) said either “no one” or “hundreds” of people worldwide will die, be made ill or injured by global warming each year, either now or 50 years from now.

Only 18% to 32% of Americans said, correctly, that each year either “thousands” or “millions” of people worldwide will die, be made ill or injured by global warming, either now or 50 years from now.

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Few Americans "very worried" about global warming

Our latest survey from April 2014 finds that only one in three Americans thinks people in the U.S. are being harmed “right now” by global warming in the United States.  Even as the impacts of global warming have increased over time, public worry has remained stable, and many Americans still perceive global warming as a relatively distant threat.

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Public Understanding vs. Scientific Consensus

In our latest survey conducted in April 2014 we found that the public misunderstanding of the degree of scientific consensus about human-caused climate change persists.  Only about half the American public believes that climate change, if it is happening, is mostly human caused.  

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Americans support limits on CO2

Americans support limits on CO2 from existing coal-fired power plants and regulating CO2 as a pollutant

Each year in the United States about 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions – the primary cause of global warming – comes from electric power plants, especially those powered by the burning of coal.

On Monday, June 2, the EPA will release new proposed limits on CO2 emissions from existing coal-fired power plants. These regulations are likely to face fierce resistance from the coal industry and their allies.

What do Americans think about these proposed limits?

A national opinion survey we conducted in April of this year finds that – by nearly a two to one margin – Americans support setting strict limits on carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired plants, even if the cost of electricity to consumers and companies increases.

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Climate Stability As Understood by Global Warming's Six Americas

Global Warming's Six Americas have very different ideas about how the climate system works:

Climate Stability as Understood by the Six Americas

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How Stable is Earth's Climate?

Americans have very different mental models of the stability of the climate system. In a nationally representative study, we examined Americans’ understanding of how the climate system works. Survey respondents were presented with the following question:

“People disagree about how the climate system works. The five pictures below illustrate five different perspectives. Each picture depicts the Earth’s climate system as a ball balanced on a line, yet each one has a different ability to withstand human-caused global warming. Which one of the five pictures best represents your understanding of how the climate system works?”

Fragile: Earth's climate is delicately balanced. Small amounts of global warming will have abrupt and catastrophic effects.

Threshold: Earth's climate is stable within certain limits. If global warming is small, climate will return to a stable balance; if it is large, there will be dangerous effects.

Gradual: Earth's climate is gradual to change. Global warming will gradually lead to dangerous effects.

Random: Earth's climate is random and unpredictable. We do not know what will happen.

Stable: Earth's climate system is very stable. Global warming will have little or no effects.

Most respondents chose the Threshold model (34%), followed by the Gradual (24%), Random (21%), Fragile (11%) and Stable (10%) models. Scientifically, at different temporal or spatial scales the climate system can exhibit each of these behaviors, but the best overall answer is the threshold model.

 

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Americans support CO2 limits on coal-fired power plants

Each year in the United States about 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions – the primary cause of global warming – comes from electric power plants, especially those powered by the burning of coal.

This June, the EPA is expected to propose new limits on CO2 emissions from existing coal-fired power plants. These regulations are likely to face fierce resistance from the coal industry.

What do Americans think about these regulations?

Our new survey this month finds that – by nearly a two to one margin – Americans support setting strict limits on carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired plants, even if the cost of electricity to consumers and companies increases.

Most Democrats support setting such limits, over half of Republicans oppose it, while Independents are evenly divided.

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Americans want government action to protect the environment

As the country celebrates Earth Day (April 22), leaders in Washington DC should bear in mind that majorities of Americans say a variety of environmental issues should be a high priority for the president and Congress.

Our recent national survey  found that over half of Americans say Washington DC should make addressing water pollution (62%), developing sources of clean energy (61%), toxic waste (56%), and air pollution (54%) a “very high” or “high” priority.

Nearly half also say the president and Congress should give high priority to the issues of damage to the Earth’s ozone layer (46%), loss of tropical rain forests (45%), and global warming (44%).

The American public expects their representatives in Washington to take action to protect the environment.

 

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Scientific and Public Perspectives on Climate Change

97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is happening and human caused, at least in part.  However, fewer than half of Americans believe in human-caused global warming and only 15% understand the degree of consensus in the scientific community.

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What Comes to Mind When You Think of the Term “Global Warming?”

In the past decade, the images and feelings Americans associate with the term “global warming” have shifted dramatically.  We recently published an article in the journal Risk Analysis that identifies and analyzes these shifts in the connotative meaning of “global warming.”

The graph below summarizes how Americans’ associations to “global warming” changed from 2003 to 2010 (more data can be found in the paper).

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Nuclear Power in the American Mind

Today marks the 1-year anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. The nuclear meltdowns, plant explosions, and release of radioactive material at Fukushima refocused world attention on the risks of nuclear power and caused many ripple effects, including shifts in public perceptions of this technology.

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Do Americans support or oppose subsidies for fossil fuels?

In his new proposed federal budget, President Obama today called on Congress to repeal more than $4 billion a year in subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, arguing that these “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies…impede investment in clean energy sources and undermine efforts to address the threat of climate change." As of November 2011, a large majority of Americans (70%) also opposed federal subsidies for the fossil fuel industry (coal, oil, and natural gas), including majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.

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Are Americans Angry at Wall Street Bankers? Do They Support the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ Protests?

December 17, 2011 marked three months since the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Acknowledging the impact of social movements across the world (from the Middle East to Wall Street), Time Magazine named “The Protester” as its 2011 Person of the Year.  In this Climate Note, we examine what Americans from different political parties think about the Occupy Wall Street protests and how angry they are at Wall Street.

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Do Americans support an international treaty on climate change?

On December 11 at the Durban (South Africa) Conference on Climate Change, the world agreed  to extend the Kyoto Protocol and begin negotiations on a new global treaty that will require all countries (developed and developing) to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In a national survey completed in November 2011, we found that a large majority of Americans (66%) support signing an international treaty requiring the US to cut emissions 90% by 2050.

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Do Americans connect climate change and extreme weather events?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) today released a special report on the influence of climate change on extreme weather events. In the United States, Americans have endured a record-setting series of extreme weather events in 2011, including the Mississippi floods, record high summer temperatures, and severe drought in Texas and Oklahoma. In a November 2011 national survey, we found that a majority of Americans believe global warming made the following events worse:

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Partisan Views of Climate Change

Americans’ Knowledge of Climate Change reports results from a national study of what Americans understand about how the climate system works, and the causes, impacts, and potential solutions to global warming. Among other findings, the study identifies a number of important gaps in public knowledge and common misconceptions about climate change.

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American Support for Regulating CO2 as a Pollutant

On Thursday, June 10, the U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote on a resolution to take away the EPA's authority to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, which President Obama has threatened to veto. As of June 1, however, large majorities of registered voters, including Republicans, Independents, and Democrats, supported regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

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