Voters see the climate crisis all around them — and believe it’s “man-made.” What now?

Polling expert Paul Roos gives us the download on changing public opinions and how to harness them.

This Valentine’s Day, EXXONKNEWS is bringing you the exceedingly romantic gift of a polling memo on climate change.

Maybe it’s the fact that our streets are flooding, our forests are burning and the words “record-breaking storm” have all but lost their meaning, but voters are waking up to the climate crisis and making it a priority in the 2020 election. NBC News recently announced that next week Vanessa Hauc will be moderating the Democratic debate in Las Vegas, meaning that for the first time ever, a climate journalist will be moderating a presidential debate. So there is clearly some change in the air here, besides more nitrous oxides. 

We asked experienced political pollster Paul Roos to give us the inside scoop on how voters’ views on the importance of addressing our climate crisis are evolving — and what that means for getting action to actually happen. So without further adieu, here is said scoop.

TO: Interested Parties
FROM: Paul Roos, Director, Benenson Strategy Group
RE: Shifting Views on Climate Change
Voters are beginning to see the effects of climate change firsthand, whether that is from the recent wildfires in Australia and California or the devastating floods in the Midwest last spring that caused almost $3 billion in property damage. Recent public polling shows that now more than ever voters want to see the U.S. government take bolder action to address climate change. 
Most Americans consider climate change an emergency facing our country – 56% said so in a nationwide Quinnipiac University Poll taken last August, and two-thirds of voters say that the United States needs to do more to address climate change. Among younger voters, those aged 18-34 who will be the most impacted by climate change, there is almost universal agreement – three-in-four (74%) said that climate change is an emergency and 82% said that the United States needs to do more to address climate change. Importantly, this shift isn’t just among younger voters: 62% of seniors said the U.S. needs to do more, as well as over three-in-four Independent voters.
It’s no wonder most of the 2020 Democratic candidates have put forward ambitious plans to address climate change. For the first time, Democratic voters are prioritizing action on climate change when selecting a candidate. According to a recent Des Moines Register Poll of likely Iowa caucus goers, 68% said climate change was extremely important to who they were going to caucus for. This ranked climate change as high as health care as likely voters’ first priority.
This is a significant shift from only a decade ago when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the first cap and trade bill to try to combat climate change, which ultimately failed in the U.S. Senate. In a 2010 CBS News poll, voters were split on whether the environment would be better/about the same (49%) or worse off (48%) for the next generation. In April of last year, CBS News asked the question again and nearly two-in three (62%) said the environment will be worse off for the next generation. 
The tide of voter opinion has also shifted on whether humans are responsible for climate change. In a February 2014 CBS News poll, 48% of adults said climate change was caused either by mostly natural patterns or that it does not exist. By last April, 62% of adults said climate change is caused mostly by human activity and 59% said they think humanity can stop climate change.
So now that a majority of American voters’ views on climate change align with the research that started coming out in the 1960s, how do we turn it into actual action on climate change? From my experience as a pollster, voters simply don’t know how to solve a problem this large, so they latch onto personal actions they can take. It’s why we see so much support for recycling programs, but mixed support on economy-wide solutions to reduce emissions. While individual actions are important, we need to use voters' evolved views on climate to motivate them to support bigger actions that will address the emergency we are facing. Climate groups need to educate the public around what policies will address climate change head on and what resources these changes will require. It’s crucial that voters now want to see action on climate, but we need to ensure that they are educated to support the right action.
Climate groups also need to help the public find ways to hold major actors accountable for their role in creating and combating climate change. That includes ensuring governments meet their “net zero” carbon emission commitments – while these are easy for the public to understand there is no way an average citizen would be able to know if their government is doing enough to meet them. Many governments who have undertaken these commitments are not making their assumptions transparent enough for the average citizen to understand whether they are likely to meet them. This also means holding corporate polluters responsible for their role in creating and perpetuating the climate crisis, as state and local governments across the country are trying to do through more than a dozen lawsuits. The Center for Climate Integrity’s poll shows that 82% of voters agree with this approach. 
We have already lost decades waiting for action on climate. We need to educate voters on what needs to be done to tackle the emergency, because we can’t waste another minute pushing for policies that won’t create systemic change.

I don’t know about you, but all this talk of humanity’s responsibility, a misguided focus on individual action over systemic change, and decades of delayed action on climate makes me feel like holding fossil fuel companies accountable for lunch. 🤷

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