Two women embrace and cry as they look out over a burned area in Lahaina, Hawaii
Two women embrace and cry as they look out over a burned area in Lahaina, Hawaii in August 2023. A new survey finds most Americans expect the impacts of climate change to worsen in the next 30 years, as climate scientists warn. [Claire Harbage | NPR]

Here’s how Americans feel about climate change

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WASHINGTON (NPR) — Most Americans say that climate change is harming people in the United States, and that climate impacts will get worse over their lifetime, according to a new national survey by the Pew Research Center.

Nearly 3 in 4 people said that climate change is hurting people in the U.S. today, according to the survey of nearly 9,000 adults.

Indeed, this year has seen a record-breaking number of weather disasters that caused at least $1 billion in damage each, including the catastrophic wildfires in Maui, a hurricane in Florida and multiple deadly floods.

This is the first time the Pew Research Center, which conducts national surveys on a range of salient topics in American life, has included such detailed questions about how Americans feel about the current and future impacts of climate change.

Most of those surveyed say they expect climate-driven disasters to intensify in the future.

“The majority of Americans see some fairly severe environmental harms as likely to happen over the next 30 years,” says Alec Tyson of the Pew Research Center, who helped lead the survey. “For example, 73% say they think a growing number of plant and animal species will go extinct, 61% say they think heat waves will cause large numbers of people to die in the U.S. every year and 58% think rising sea levels will force large numbers of people in the U.S. to move away from the coast.”

Those sentiments are backed up by scientific research, which has long warned that greenhouse gas emissions would threaten Americans’ health, finances and very lives.

Reducing fossil fuel consumption dramatically and immediately will help avoid even more dangerous warming in the future. Most Americans expect renewable energy to get more ubiquitous in the coming years, the survey finds, with 57% saying that they expect renewable energy will produce most of the energy in the U.S. in 30 years.

In 2022, renewable energy, including wind and solar, accounted for a little less than a quarter of American electricity generation, but investment in renewable energy is accelerating.

People aren’t necessarily worried about their own communities

One thing the survey suggests is that there is tension between Americans’ perception that climate change impacts are getting worse, and their understanding of how those impacts might occur in their own communities.

Although most respondents say climate change impacts will be more severe in the next 30 years, only 41% think climate change will make their own community a worse place to live over that same time period. And just as many say they don’t think climate change will make much difference in their community.

Flooding in Bridgewater, Vt., in July 2023 submerged vehicles and flooded buildings.
Flooding in Bridgewater, Vt., in July 2023 submerged vehicles and flooded buildings. Americans are sad, anxious and often motivated to act about climate change according to a new survey. [Hasan Jamali | AP]
That dissonance also shows up in another finding from the survey: the majority of Americans say the Southwest, coastal Florida and Southern California are going to become worse areas to live over the next 30 years because of climate change. Yet those regions include some of the fastest-growing places in the country.

Young people more concerned than older people

Younger people are more concerned about climate change, and are more likely to be calling on those in power to act, the survey finds.

“Young adults are especially likely to think harm will increase in the United States. Nearly 8 and 10 say that, over the course of their lifetime,” says Tyson. Young people are also more likely to say that their community will be a worse place to live over the next 30 years because of climate change, the survey finds.

That concern may spur young people to donate money to climate-related causes, contact elected officials about climate legislation or attend a climate rally, the survey suggests. Nearly one third of people 18 to 29 years old say they’ve participated in climate activism in the last year, which is nearly twice the rate of people 65 and older.

Americans are sad, anxious and frustrated when they think about climate change

The survey asked people about the feelings they have when they read news stories about climate change or encounter climate advocacy in their lives.

“One of the most widely held sentiments is feeling sad about what’s happening to the Earth,” says Tyson. Nearly three quarters of Americans say they feel sad. Anxiety about the impacts of climate change is also a major sentiment, as well as frustration about the lack of political agreement on the topic.

Half of those surveyed say they feel motivated to address climate change.

Some Americans are also skeptical of those who are advocating for policies that would address climate change, such as investment in renewable energy, the survey finds.

“53% of Americans, and this is particularly widespread among Republicans, say they felt suspicious of the groups and people pushing for action on climate change,” says Tyson. “There’s some mistrust toward the reasons or motivation.”

Conservative groups have harnessed that mistrust to feed a backlash against renewable energy in some parts of the country.

“The public is pretty skeptical that climate activism changes minds or spurs elected officials to act,” says Tyson. “Just 28% think that these forms of climate activism change people’s minds. And an even smaller share, just 11%, think climate activism is extremely or very effective at getting elected officials to act.”

Americans say companies and governments have the most power over climate action

Americans feel that, when it comes to addressing climate change, big corporations and the energy industry can do more than individuals.

Only about a quarter of respondents feel that individual Americans can do a lot to address climate change. But more than half of those surveyed feel that the energy industry, which includes oil and gas companies, can do a lot to reduce the effects of climate change. The same is true of other large businesses and corporations.

A slightly smaller portion, 47%, feel that the federal government can do a lot. But only a third of Americans think the U.S. and other countries will do enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

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