Climate change is at the root of this year’s extreme weather events, from the wild swings between flooding and drought in Kansas to larger hurricanes and some of the worst wildfires the West has seen.
And the majority of Americans are starting to take notice, according to the latest survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
The climate opinion map, which was compiled from survey data from March 2020, shows 72% of Americans believe that global warming is happening. At a local level, Kansans and Missourians aren’t far behind, with a little more than two-thirds believing that global warming is happening.
“Everyone by and large underestimates how much people care about this issue,” Yale School of Environment research scientist Jennifer Marlon said.
Because of that, she said, people are often afraid to bring up climate change because they’re worried that the other person will disagree with them.
Climate change policy
The point of the survey is to figure out what Americans really think so that climate researchers can better understand what misconceptions or policy preferences are out there.
For example, in Kansas, there’s majority support for a wide range of climate-related policies. Eighty-five percent of people support funding research into renewable energy resources; 62% support setting strict limits on CO2 emissions from existing coal-fired power plants; and 80% support providing tax rebates for energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels.
Many politicians say they make decisions about priorities and votes based on constituent opinion, but when it comes to climate change, “they get it wrong,” Marlon said.
“They don’t know what public opinion actually is.”
Amber Campbell, an assistant professor of anthropology at Kansas State University, said ranchers and farmers in Kansas and Oklahoma mirror the Yale study.
Ten years ago, producers would tell Campbell the climate wasn’t changing, but she said they’d talk for hours about all the ways the weather was different now than in the past. In her most recent surveys, they’re more willing to acknowledge it.
“The reality that weather is different than it was 30 years ago is becoming more and more apparent to people regardless of where they’re at in life,” Campbell said.
Climate change risks
While there’s a growing understanding about the realities of climate change, there’s still a disconnect between what’s at stake. Two-thirds of Kansans think global warming will harm future generations and a majority believe global warming will harm plants, animals and people in developing countries.
But only 37% of Kansans think that global warming will harm them personally.
It’s the same across the country, a psychological phenomenon Marlon attributes to optimism bias. She said in some ways that’s good, because it prevents us from always worrying about worst-case scenarios, but ultimately we have to make sure we’re taking actions to protect ourselves against real and present dangers.
“We tend to sort of feel that we won’t be touched, like somehow we’re invincible or have a protective bubble around us,” she said. “Unfortunately, that’s not true.”
The data for the Yale Program on Climate Change comes from a national survey of more than 25,000 respondents. The team validated the local data model with independent surveys in California, Texas, Colorado and Ohio. For statewide level data, the margin of error is plus or minus 7 percentage points.
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email him at grimmett (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.
Copyright 2020 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit kmuw.org.