Every couple of years, researchers at Yale University poll Americans about their perceptions of climate change. They just released their latest survey results, and the numbers show that we have passed from one phase of the climate change fight into a new one.

For decades, the big task before climate activists was to convince their fellow Americans of a few things:

  • Climate change is real;
  • Climate change will be harmful; and
  • We should act to minimize it.

For a long time, a significant percentage of Americans believed that there was no such thing as climate change. In fact, one of the country's two major political parties — along with many of its voters — was committed to this view.

But now, the survey results indicate, most Americans accept that climate change is real, bad, and worth fighting:

  • 72% of Americans think "global warming is happening."
  • 58% think that it is "caused mostly by human activities."
  • 74% think that government should regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
  • 68% think that fossil fuel companies should have to pay a carbon tax.

Now, it would be nice if these numbers were closer to 100%, but we have to remember that this is America, and there aren't many things we all agree on, even if they are plainly true.

After all, this is a country where, in 2021, 34% of respondents believed that "elites, from government and Hollywood, are engaged in a massive child sex trafficking racket;" 17% believed that "the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals;" and 26% agreed that "a powerful family, the Rothschilds, through their wealth, controls governments, wars, and many countries' economies."

So, honestly, getting 72% of us to say that global warming is real is pretty good. It seems that we have moved out of the period where it's necessary to convince people of the science of climate change. This is a significant success, even though it took longer than it should have due to persistent misinformation from political and corporate sources.

But there's still some distance to go. Americans may agree that climate change is real and bad, but they seem not to be interested in doing much about it. If they're going to agree to meaningfully combat climate change, Americans need to believe that climate change is important, addressable, and nonpartisan.

Polls like the Yale survey I cited above can be misleading because they measure preferences on certain issues, but they don't measure the importance of those issues to voters.

People say they want all sorts of stuff — gun control, a higher minimum wage, expanded Medicare coverage, etc. But the key question is not what voters prefer — it's what drives them to make decisions at the ballot box.

Voters may have vague policy preferences on lots of issues, but they only vote, donate, or contact their representatives about issues with a high personal salience to them. An issue with high salience to a voter is something they a) pay attention to and b) consider personally important. They might disagree with a candidate about a dozen issues with low salience, but still vote for them because of one high-salience issue.

Climate change is, for most Americans, a pretty low-salience issue. In a 2022 survey, it ranked 14th on a list of voters' priorities. Even for young voters, a constituency that is assumed to be quite concerned with climate issues, the environment often takes a back seat. As Nathaniel Stinnett of the Environmental Voter Project told NPR, "Although the climate crisis is the most important issue facing humanity, it's not even close to being the most important voting issue when people cast ballots on Election Day."

Part of the problem is the very nature of the climate crisis — it's huge, slow-moving, and isn't going anywhere. There will always be more "urgent" crises to attract voters' (and reporters') attention; we can always circle back to it after the economy is stabilized, or the latest flareup in the Middle East dies down. But if we keep ignoring climate change because we're paying attention to the crisis du jour, we'll never meaningfully address it.

In addition to getting voters to prioritize climate solutions, it will also be important to make sure Americans have an accurate understanding of climate change. In my day job as a teacher, I encounter a lot of people — especially young people who might be potential "climate voters" — who have a profoundly incorrect understanding of climate change (until they take my class, at least).

Their problem is not that they are climate deniers. Instead, the problem is that they're climate doomers. They believe the world is crashing down around them, and that it's too late for climate solutions.

This is not just an incorrect understanding of the world around them, it's a truly harmful one. Freaking out about the climate or getting overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem is tempting — I've been there! — but it's not productive, nor is it necessarily an accurate assessment of the situation. We have already seen some improvement in climate projections (the worst-case scenarios of 4 or 5 degrees of warming seem largely off the table). Countries' climate programs, combined with the innovation of private industry, though inadequate at the moment, are starting to make a real difference.

There's a long way to go, of course, but doomerism won't help us get there. In fact, it will probably be counterproductive if people on the American left act as if nothing is being done or that the Biden administration's policies are worthless. This will demoralize potential climate voters; instead, we should celebrate the big steps we've taken in the last four years while pushing for more.

It's a difficult needle to thread — climate activists need to convince Americans that climate change is a serious issue, but we can't indulge in hyperbole or push people into hopelessness or helplessness. It will take precise and honest messaging to make sure people understand the actual situation.

Finally, we need to depolarize climate change.

This may be the most difficult problem of all. Almost everything in American politics has been sucked into the vortex of polarization, from higher education to democracy itself. Environmentalism — caring about the planet that keeps us all alive! — has become coded as a solely left-wing concern. And, since caring about the environment is considered a liberal position, Republicans have chosen to oppose it, often cartoonishly so.

The interesting thing here is the tension between economic opportunities around clean energy and stubborn polarization. Red states like Iowa, Texas, and Kansas have become major producers of wind power, even though their politics are superficially opposed to climate solutions. As Hannah Ritchie writes,

Abel Gustafson and colleagues studied the attitudes on clean energy among Republicans and Democrats. They found strong support for renewables across the political spectrum (although stronger among Democrats) but for different reasons.

Democrats gave "reducing global warming" and "reducing air pollution" as their top reasons. Climate change was very low on the list for Republicans. Instead, they voted for "Reduce energy costs", "Get energy from sources that never run out" and "Increase America's energy independence".

The more economic opportunities that come from climate solutions, the more likely it is that people will come to support doing something about climate change — even if they don't use the term "climate change" because of its political coding.

So, after decades, the climate community can finally rest assured that the vast majority of Americans accept that climate change is real. Now, we have to work to make sure that people understand that it's important, that it's addressable, and that it transcends partisan politics.

I think the first and easiest place to start is addressability. Nobody wants to spend a lot of time worrying about impossible problems, so voters may start to prioritize climate solutions if they understand how achievable they are. And focusing on practical solutions that promise a better, cleaner future will take us out of the old "treehuggers vs. economists" partisan battle and into more constructive discussions.

It took far too long for Americans to come around to the fact that climate change is real. Let's try to help our fellow citizens develop a more sophisticated understanding of the climate crisis a little more quickly.

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