Americans recognize the climate is changing. But they disagree on why — and what to do about it

Americans recognize the climate is changing. But they disagree on why — and what to do about it

As images of melting runways, buckling railway tracks and raging wildfires consumed the world's attention this week, Americans remained deadlocked on how to slow the climate change that scientists say is driving much of the extreme weather we're seeing.

The disintegration of U.S. President Joe Biden's climate plan — which would have pumped about $300 billion US in tax incentives into the renewable energy sector, subsidized the purchase of electric vehicles and accelerated efforts to cut the nation's carbon emissions by half by 2030 — underlined the polarization that still exists when it comes to prioritizing climate issues.

A survey done by the Pew Research Center in May found that 49 per cent of Americans said the Biden administration's policies on climate change are taking the country in the right direction, while 47 said the opposite.

And while the majority of Americans might recognize that the climate is changing, they don't always agree on what's driving that change and what to do about it.

An aerial view shows destroyed houses in a flooded area of Montegut, La., after Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana in August 2021. Nearly three-quarters of Americans said they experienced at least one extreme weather event in the past year, according to a Pew Research Center survey. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Along with political divisions, the Democrats' progress on the climate file has been undercut by the fact that, at a time of painfully high gas prices and inflation exceeding nine per cent, voters in both parties don't see it as a top priority.

"Climate change continues to rank far behind inflation and gun violence as a matter of great concern for Americans," said Tim Malloy, an analyst for the Quinnipiac University Poll, which tracks voter sentiments.

"It remains an uphill battle to get Americans to focus on what the experts believe is a clear and present danger."

Quinnipiac and other recent polls rank climate change behind inflation, gun violence, immigration and election integrity as the most urgent issues facing the country. A CNN poll taken between June 13 and July 13 found that even among Democratic-aligned voters, climate change ranked fourth among the issues respondents wanted addressed in the November midterm elections.

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'The bottom line is inflation'

It's that sentiment that centrist Democratic Senator Joe Manchin tapped into when he failed to back his party's climate plan last week, ensuring its defeat were it to go before the U.S. Senate, control of which is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

"The bottom line is inflation," the West Virginia lawmaker told reporters earlier this week. "I'm worried about the person that can't feed their family, that can't basically put gas in their car to go to work and is having a hard time paying their utility bills … I'm more concerned about that more than anything else."

Manny Villa thinks voters might change their tune come November. The North Carolina native who was visiting Washington, D.C., this week says his home state has seen more days above 32 C this summer than usual — and similarly unusual weather patterns around the country are getting the public's attention.

Manny Villa of North Carolina, pictured on Capitol Hill, says he thinks the severe heat many parts of the U.S. are experiencing will bump climate change higher up on people's priorities by the time the midterm elections come around in November. (CBC)

"I think climate change will have a greater impact on voting after this summer, when we've had record heat," he told CBC's Katie Simpson. "The economy will probably be the biggest impact, but climate change has to be up there." 

He'd like to see more investment in wind, solar and nuclear energy and more tax credits for residential solar power, he said. "Anything they can do to increase the use of that."

Speed of energy transition divisive

How fast to transition away from fossil fuels is a polarizing question in the U.S.

Eighty-two per cent of Republicans and those who lean Republican say they oppose phasing out the production of new gas-powered vehicles by 2035, while 65 per cent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters say they favour it, according to the Pew survey.

Daniel Brooks, 42, is firmly in the camp that views Biden's attempt to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels as too much too fast. The row-crop farmer from Tate County, Miss., said he was against Biden's shuttering of the Keystone XL pipeline and the potential jobs that would have come with it.

"We're so dependent on fossil fuels, and we're not efficient enough yet with our solar and wind and electric power for everyone to go to that immediately," he said as he and his wife and two children took photos outside the White House this week. "It's going to have to be a slower transition."

A driver pumps gas in Lynnfield, Mass., this week. Americans disagree on how fast to move away from fossil fuels. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images)

Like a majority of Americans, Brooks does support use of more renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

"I farm and I use a lot of fuel, and I agree that we should be good stewards with our energies and with our oil, but I disagree [with] the way we're going about it," Brooks said.

"I think just cutting things out immediately is not the answer."

Republicans and Democrats do agree on some policies such as planting trees to absorb carbon emissions and giving tax credits to businesses for carbon capture and storage, but they differ when it comes to fossil fuels, with 76 per cent of Republicans favouring more offshore oil and gas drilling, compared to 27 per cent of Democrats.

While not a single Republican in the House or Senate backed Biden's climate bill, younger Republicans support some federal action on climate, such as incentives for hybrid and electric vehicles and requiring power companies to use more renewable energy, said Cary Funk, Pew's director of science and society research. 

Younger Democrats, meanwhile, say that even the policies that didn't manage to get through Congress don't go far enough.

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Most have experienced extreme weather

The Pew survey found that a majority of Americans (71 per cent) say their community has experienced extreme weather in the past year, such as droughts, floods or bouts of unusual heat. Whether or not they associate those events with climate change can determine whether or not they support policies to address them.

Interventions to stem climate change are still seen by many Americans as detrimental to the economy, says Samatha Gross, director of the energy security and climate initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"I feel like we're missing the fact that rampant climate change is terrible for the economy," she said. "It frustrates me that we're not more forward thinking … We've focused on the costs and not the benefits."

Anthony Harris wipes sweat from his face during an excessive heat warning in San Antonio, Texas, Tuesday. (Lisa Krantz/Reuters)

Although Biden vowed Wednesday to "not take no for an answer" and to use his executive powers to push through his climate agenda, Gross fears the U.S. has missed its chance of passing federal legislation beyond the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act adopted last year, which expanded funding for clean energy technologies and infrastructure.

While states can enact their own laws, there are areas where federal standards can make a difference, Gross said.

"Transportation is the biggest emissions sector in the U.S., and a lot of the transportation stuff is necessarily federal, like fuel efficiency standards," she said. "Also, things like cap-and-trade … if you really want an economy-wide carbon price that allows trade-offs amongst sectors, that's a federal thing."

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Some states not waiting for federal action

Federal legislation can also be harder to undo than at the state level, Gross said, although the recent EPA ruling rolling back federal limits on power plant emissions shows that's not always the case. 

In Manchin's home state of West Virginia, for example, Republicans this year tried, unsuccessfully, to repeal the Virginia Clean Economy Act Democrats had brought in two years earlier, which commits utilities to going carbon-free by 2050. 

Manchin cited high utility bills as one of the reasons he was not ready to back funding for ambitious climate initiatives, but James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University, says it's the state's own reluctance to accelerate the adoption of cheaper renewable energy that is hurting the people the senator claims to be protecting.

Steam rises from a pile of coal at a mine in Bishop, W.Va. Many coal mines in West Virginia have closed, but coal still powers the bulk of the state's electricity generation, according to 2020 figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

"Our utility rates are going up faster than the other states in the country because we continue to burn more coal," said Van Nostrand, who wrote a book on coal's impact on clean energy development. "Most states have moved beyond coal into natural gas and wind and solar, and we're still getting 88 per cent of our electricity by coal."

Like many of Manchin's critics, Van Nostrand suspects the fact the senator has benefited financially from the coal industry factored into his decision to reject the climate bill but says coal miners won't be helped in the long run.

"We're missing out on all the jobs created in the clean energy sector," he said. "That's where most of the job growth has been the last decade They don't pay as well, but there's a future there."

Wind turbines generate power on a farm near Throckmorton, Texas. The state is more known for oil but has a significant green energy sector. (Nick Oxford/Reuters)

Tyler Duvelius of the Conservative Energy Network, which advocates for market-driven climate solutions at the state level, is more optimistic about states' ability to take on the climate issue.

He points to conservative states such as Iowa, which generates more than half of its electricity from renewables, Florida, whose governor has backed climate resiliency initiatives, and Texas's large clean energy sector.

"When you look at a state like Iowa, for example … clean energy is there to stay. That's been supported by Republican and Democratic leadership because it makes good economic sense," he said. "When you prioritize the free market aspect, instead of the government imposing a mandate, that's when solutions are going to stick around a lot longer than the shelf life of just the political mood of the country."

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