Climate change issues have a reputation for being divisive. Data show it's not quite true

The majority of the country believes climate change is happening and is worried for the future. But experts say real change won't happen until the beliefs are more personal.

Mobile was the first established city in Alabama. Casi Callaway, the chief resilience officer for the city, calls Alabama, "the buckle of the Bible belt, and the reddest of the red states."

But Mobile is an example of how climate change and environmental rhetoric in America is not as political as many politicians, pundits and officials often suggest.

The area sits in the southwest corner of the state, surrounded by more than 600 miles of shoreline.

"We actually kind of bleed green," Callaway explained.

"We care so much about being able to hunt and fish and kayak, and get on the waterway every single time we can, every chance we get. So, when we talk about nature, we care, and we really light up and get inspired," she continued.

Two years into the job, Callaway works for the city on everything from litter and recycling programs to flood impacts and insurance to electric vehicles. She said she assesses how her community can be more resilient and goes from there.

Previously, Callaway worked as an environmental advocate in Mobile. She said she didn't use the words "climate change" to avoid political arguments even though she worked on issues like pollution reduction.

But as Chief Resilience Officer, "we've got to look at it a little bit differently, and we have to start acclimating people to the words, because the words are a lot more about where the impacts come from," Callaway said.

Larger rainstorms cause more flooding, for example, and Callaway said using the right terminology helps people understand what is causing the larger rainstorms.

"I do believe that people are starting to be okay with the term climate change. I believe people recognize weather patterns have changed dramatically," she said.

Climate perspectives vary across the country, but by smaller margins than political leanings

Nearly three-quarters of Americans believe global warming and climate change is happening. Two thirds are worried about it, according to The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Yale's program produces Climate Opinion Maps based on a large national survey dataset with more than 28,000 respondents collected between 2008 and 2021.

And, the strong majorities nationwide don't just apply to believing climate change is impacting the weather and might harm people. The data show widespread support for government intervention:

  • 77% of Americans support funding research into renewable energy sources and tax credits for electric vehicles and solar panels
  • 72% believe the government should regulate CO2 as a pollutant
  • 66% support imposing strict limits on coal power plants and taxing fossil fuel companies

For context, the largest popular vote percentage in a presidential election in American history was in 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson won 61% of the popular vote.

President Ronald Reagan's 1984 win was considered a landslide when he nearly swept electoral votes. But Reagan only won about 59% of the popular vote.

These climate change opinions vary by geography with some resemblance to political trends, and democrats are more likely to have pro-climate leanings, a recent Pew survey found.

But the issue isn't black and white: republicans are not completely against climate-friendly changes and geographic trends on climate opinions aren't as extreme as political ones.

Percent of U.S. adults who are worried about global warming

By county

In 92% of counties in the country, more than half of residents are worried about global warming.

That includes Mobile County, AL - the county surrounding the city of Mobile - where 58% of residents are worried about global warming and 59% believe it will harm people.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump received 55% of the 2020 presidential vote in Mobile County.

Climate perspectives vs political voting in Mobile County, AL

There's a distance between collective worry and personal action

Joe Árvai is the director of the Wrigley Institute for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Southern California. He studies how people think and behave around climate change issues.

Árvai said it's "heartening that at least in private, more people are acknowledging that this [climate change] is happening, which I think opens the door to people in policy, certainly people in business to start doing things differently."

But there's an important caveat to address, he said.

"You can say that you're worried but whether or not you do something about it is a different matter entirely," said Árvai.

He said most people don't tend to be very rational in thinking about the risks of climate change.

For example: more than 70% of Americans say they believe global warming will harm plants and animals. Even the counties with the lowest percentage of these beliefs bottom out at 51%, Yale numbers show.

But only 47% believe climate change will harm them personally (many, apparently, forgetting how critical plants and animals are to human life).

In fact, most of the areas that have a high percentage of people who believe climate change will affect them personally are the same areas that have a high percentage of people who say it already has.

Árvai said this disconnect is due to the "psychological leaps" many may have to perform to close the distance between what people tell them about climate change and what they experience.

Percent of U.S. adults who think global warming will harm them personally

Click on the buttons below to see the percentage of people who say global warming will harm them personally and the percentage who say they have already personally experienced the effects.

For those who may be living in an area where the weather is still moderate, it may be hard to accept the extent to which climate change will harm them personally.

"If you show someone in those very same places, pictures of wildfires, or floods or climate-related natural hazards happening far away, that will tend to kind of get people's kind of eyes to open, but they'll still think of it as a faraway issue," Árvai said.

You can say that you're worried but whether or not you do something about it is a different matter entirely.

Joe Árvai, Wrigley Institute for Environment and Sustainability, USC

How do we close the psychological distances of climate change?

Árvai said the next step in climate change discourse needs to go beyond the communication piece and onto actual decisions and change.

"Ultimately, that's sort of that next level, right? Getting from 'Hey, it's happening,' to 'I hear you, and I understand you,' to, "Okay, now I'm going to do something about it. And that's something is going to be this,'" he said.

But the "sad truth" to how we get there is, "when things go really, really bad, people will suddenly be like, 'Oh, no, like, we've got to do something. And we've got to do something now,'" Árvai said.

But by then, it's likely too late.

So, the solution is to find ways to work together, perhaps without always talking about climate change directly, Árvai said.

Árvai pointed to the environmental social governance movement in business, which is about making companies more resilient to all future hardships, including climate change.

Americans place the most burden on corporations to address climate change. About 7 in 10 Americans believe corporations should do more; about two thirds think citizens should do more.

Groups that Americans believe should do more to address global warming

"Those businesses ought to be a little bit more proactive in terms of responding to things like climate change. Why? So that they can make money, so that they can protect their shareholders, so that consumers can continue to enjoy their products," he said.

It's similar to what Casi Callaway is noticing in Mobile, Ala.

The Mobile area is home to a large steel mill. Steel production accounted for about 8% of total global carbon dioxide emissions in 2018.

But there is pressure from other businesses like electric car companies to reduce emissions of steel production, Callaway said. They might be more willing to buy steel from a mill with lower emissions.

"They're showing a real focus on being a better, cleaner, and more progressive company. So, what the city of Mobile is working to do is really be ready for that." Callaway said.

"We've got to do it for industry and business, for the economy, not just for the bunnies and the birds and the trees out there," she continued.

About 61% of Americans point to congress to address climate change, 59% to local officials, 57% to governors and just over half to the president.

But as a local official, Callaway sees the difference she can make at state and national levels.

"If we can make our city a showcase and a flagship for what other cities across the state of Alabama can do? That's excellent. But we gotta do it by really focusing in and honing in on, what is our role to play? I think we do that really well here," Callaway continued.

If we can make our city a showcase and a flagship for what other cities across the state of Alabama can do? That's excellent.

Casi Callaway, Chief Resilience Officer, Mobile, AL

Resilience efforts: A tale of two Californias

Across the country, California is seen by the rest of the country - and perhaps the world - as the state of Hollywood, beaches, the Golden Gate Bridge and progressive politics.

But in 22 of 58 counties, most voters chose Donald Trump.

Mariposa County

In Mariposa County, 58% voted for Trump - more than in Mobile.

Yale survey data show about two-thirds are worried about global warming - about the same as the nationwide percentage. About three-quarters believe it will harm plants, animals and future generations. But, less than half think climate change will harm them personally.

County officials said they can freely discuss climate change with their community.

Lizz Darcy, the public information officer for Mariposa County, said officials recognize that the climate change conversation can be politically driven. But, "we're not talking politics. We're talking people."

"The health, safety, quality of life of our community is our priority in the county," Darcy said.

She said the people of Mariposa County recognize that the natural beauty of the county also "poses a risk."

"And if we want to continue to thrive as a community and a county we have to factor in what those risks are gonna be," Darcy said.

Last year, the Oak Fire became one of the worst fires in county history, destroying 127 homes and burning 19,000 acres. It resulted in more than $8 million in property loss.

"Outdoor recreation is a huge part of living in Mariposa County...It's why a lot of people choose to live there, and it's certainly why a lot of people choose to visit there," said Mikey Goralnik, the senior community design and development planner for Mariposa County.

The county sits between the Sierra and Stanislaus National Forests and overlaps Yosemite National Park.

Goralnik said many use the town of Mariposa "as a launching point for adventures: mountain biking, horseback riding, trail running, river rafting in the Sierra Foothills."

So, in the interest of protecting those precious resources, the county developed a recreation and resiliency plan to help reduce and mitigate the impacts of severe fire and flooding on Mariposa County's parks and outdoor spaces.

But it can be hard to secure state and federal resources for rural, inland communities like Mariposa County, said Goralnik. That's because a lot of the climate resources go to the coastal communities that also happen to be the largest population centers.

"There's a downstream benefit. I don't mean that figuratively. Literally, we are the state's watershed. We are where everybody's drinking water comes from," he said.

We're not talking politics. We're talking people.

Lizz Darcy, Public Information Officer, Mariposa County, CA

Los Angeles County

But even counties like Los Angeles struggle with allocating climate help to people in an equitable way.

About 74% of Angelenos say they are worried about global warming and 73% believe it will harm people in the U.S.

But fewer people - 59% - think climate change will harm them personally.

"The public often views individual action on climate change through the lens of things that can be paid for," said Ali Frazzini, a sustainability policy adviser for LA County's Chief Sustainability Office.

She pointed to things like electric cars, upgrading your home to use less fossil fuels and adding green space.

"That will only benefit people who are wealthy enough...and that that won't get us where we need on our climate goals because we can't rely on people's personal bank accounts to help us mitigate climate change. So that's why we really have to think about the public resources that we can make available," she said.

Another challenge with making changes in a place as large and dense as Los Angeles County is balancing the speed of change with unexpected impacts.

"The faster you go, the more likely you are to have unintended consequences," Frazzini said.

"So if we're really trying to do this in a way that doesn't hurt communities, that doesn't exacerbate inequality or create some kind of negative health consequence, we need to make sure that we're doing extensive community engagement, that people sharing their lived expertise as part of that community engagement have opportunities to get fairly compensated for their contributions," Frazzini continued.

There's no single villain

According to Árvai, the key to making a difference is de-politicizing climate change issues while acknowledging their complexity.

"Climate change isn't a story where there's a single villain," he said. "It's hard to blame any one person for what's happening. As much as we would like to find someone to blame. We're all complicit in this."

"There are different values and objectives that we have that are at stake as a result of climate change, regardless of our political ideology," Árvai continued.

He also said that the conflict narrative of climate change can turn people off.

If climate change turns into a "big fight," Árvai said many will want to stay out of it.

"And we can't afford that," he said.

For Callaway, there's one big hurdle to jump.

"We gotta figure out how to talk to people about climate and resilience and what it means and what it looks like, so that we stop scaring people, and we start inspiring people to get to work. There's a lot we can do. And I really want to see us working together to make that happen," she said.


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