Ten years ago, the invisible threat of climate change seemed to be an issue only oracles and Al Gore could see.
“It used to be really low on everybody’s list,” Jennifer Marlon, research scientist at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, said.
But recently, as Americans face tangible effects of climate change, the issue has come to the forefront of national consciousness. With fewer than 50 days remaining until the presidential election, the nation is heading into a race in which climate change is a key issue on the ballot. Among liberal Democrats, a study found climate change is nationally among the top two most important issues. It falls in the top eight among moderate and conservative Democrats, Matthew Goldberg, associate research scientist at the Program, said.
At a minimum, every Democratic candidate in the primaries said they would get back in the Paris Climate agreement if they were elected. Some even centered their campaigns on global warming.
“Actually we just need to stop there and period, bold, italicize, underline,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, said. “For the first time in American political history, climate change is now a top priority of at least the base of one of our two major political parties.”
The Nov. 3 presidential election comes as large parts of the country face the brunt of climate change. In California, wildfires have burned more than 3.2 million acres of land since the start of 2020, an area akin to the size of Connecticut. On the East and Gulf Coasts, people are bracing for a series of hurricanes and tropical storms. Though scientists have linked these extreme weather events to human-caused climate change, the issue has edged its way into contention, split across political lines.
The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication houses a team of social scientists investigating public opinion and behavior surrounding global warming. It advises government officials and the media on how best to craft messaging around climate change.
In recent years, the program’s Climate Opinion Maps have shown increased polarization on the topic, in part due to the issue becoming much more important to Democrats, while Republicans continue to rank it low on their list of priorities in the election, Leiserowitz said.
Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s campaign has placed climate change as a central issue. Biden has outlined a plan for the U.S. to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
On Monday, Biden called President Donald Trump a “climate arsonist,” while Trump said to California officials, “I don’t think science knows what is happening.”
In the 2016 election, fissures formed within the Democratic party between progressive Bernie Sanders supporters and the more moderate Hillary Clinton camp, Goldberg said. Relative to Clinton, he added, Biden has moved farther left with his position on the climate.
This shift breaks with tradition, Leiserowitz explained. Politicians traditionally position themselves at their party’s pole for the primary, and move center to capture the swing vote in the general election.
But Leiserowitz said the swing voters are “unicorns,” with so few left in this election when most voters have strong opinions on Biden and Trump. Instead, he said, Biden’s challenge is to mobilize young people, Latinos and suburban women to vote — all people for whom climate change is a priority.
Across party lines, young adults are more likely to identify with climate activists than older generations. According to a recent Yale study, 59 percent of millennial or younger adults said they would vote for a candidate because of their position on global warming, compared to 48 percent of Gen X and Baby Boomers or 46 percent of older adults.
Even amid the coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis, early data shows that people have remained concerned about climate change. An April Yale study found that Americans’ understanding that climate change is happening was tied at an all-time high, and understanding that humans have caused climate change reached an all-time high. Other survey work since showed that people have continued thinking about climate change while also confronting other crises.
“I think that’s really an important sign that climate change has solidified as an issue,” Leiserowitz said.
Climate change has become an issue much more like abortion, where people have set opinions and do not forget about it because other matters have crowded the news cycle, Leiserowitz added.
Marlon said she would not be surprised if concern about climate change has increased with the recent extreme weather events. She called them a “wake-up call” for people who were already vaguely concerned about climate change but who thought it was a distant threat. This week, haze from the West Coast wildfires has cloaked the country, reaching to the opposite coast.
“I think these events are definitely making people give climate change a second thought because they thought the impacts were going to happen at the end of this century or maybe it would affect polar bears or small island nations,” Marlon said. “They didn’t think it was really going to affect the United States, and they certainly didn’t think it was going to be visible and so destructive so soon.”
Still, debates persist on whether the media should explicitly link the extreme weather events to human-caused climate change. Some people, particularly those for whom climate change is not a chief concern, do not connect the extreme weather to global warming. But media outlets run the risk of seeming to politicize the events.
“I think it’s important to point out that people in the media need to cover this as a climate issue,” Goldberg said. “Especially because it should dispel the myth that climate change is out far in the future or far away from the U.S. It’s happening right now, we’re seeing the consequences of it.”
Marlon added that a Yale poll found that only a quarter of American adults reported reading about global warming in the media at least once a week.
News outlets should capitalize on this moment, Marlon emphasized, to explain the link between burning fossil fuels and the fires ravaging California. The media has a duty to explain to the American people that climate change will affect them personally and will not wait for future generations or far-off places, she added.
“We’re breathing the smoke if we’re not actually being affected by the fire itself directly,” she said.
Although extreme weather events amplify concerns about climate change, a Yale study found that people underestimate how much others believe climate change is happening.
Climate deniers comprise only 10 percent of Americans, Leiserowitz said, but are disproportionately amplified and represented in the White House and Congress.
And though about 57 percent of Americans believe climate change is real and caused by humans according to the 2020 Yale Climate opinion maps, people think that there are more climate deniers than there actually are and fear bringing up climate change with people whose views they don’t know well, potentially hurting a friendship.
“Climate change has often joined sex, religion and politics as a topic that you don’t talk about at the Thanksgiving table because nobody wants to piss off Uncle Bob,” Leiserowitz said. “While there’s a lot of things that we absolutely must do about climate change, the first and perhaps most crucial thing that we have to do as a society is to talk about it. If you don’t talk about it, the problem doesn’t seem to exist for many people.”
The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication produces maps of public opinion on climate change, the most recent of which was published earlier this month.
Rose Horowitch | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Sept. 20: A previous version of this article stated that about 90 percent of Americans believe climate change is real and caused by humans. In fact, 57 percent of Americans believe this. The article has been updated to reflect this.