Americans on Climate Change: All Talk, Little Action

Project scientist Nathan Kurtz and senior support scientist Jeremy Harbeck walk on their way to survey an iceberg locked in sea ice near Thule Air Base on March 26, 2017, in Pituffik, Greenland.

Source Mario Tama/Getty

Why you should care

Because a new OZY poll shows many are unwilling to make tough choices in favor of Mother Earth.

Tim Whitley gets it; he really does. The founder of the environmental nonprofit Carbon Offsets to Alleviate Poverty (COTAP) is wary of coming off too preachy when it comes to reducing people’s carbon footprints. Whitley admits that even he is delaying putting solar panels on his roof until a home remodel, and, hell, if he had the means, he’d fly in private jets — if only to avoid the customs line at Kennedy airport. “Life is hard enough as it is [before] you think about climate change,” he says. “A lot of the actions that one would take are hard to do.”

And most people aren’t doing the hard stuff. In a new, exclusive nationwide survey conducted by OZY with SurveyMonkey ahead of Earth Day, 80 percent of Americans say climate change is at least a somewhat serious problem — with 34 percent saying it’s extremely serious. But concern doesn’t always translate into action. About three-quarters of Americans said they recycle, turn off the lights when they leave the room and use energy-efficient appliances. But popularity plummets when remedies get less convenient. When asked if they had done any of the following to help the environment, 23 percent compost, 17 percent had fewer or no children, 15 percent use public transit and 8 percent are vegetarian.

From March 13–16, SurveyMonkey and OZY polled 3,958 adults, selected from the nearly 3 million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day. The modeled error estimate for the full sample is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points. Data has been weighted for age, race, sex, education and geography using census data to reflect America’s demographics. The full results can be found here, and you can see the crosstabs for results broken down by age, race, gender and political persuasion here.


Digging deeper into the numbers, you find a clear partisan split. Not only are Democrats and those who lean Democratic more likely than Republicans and their leaners to say climate change is primarily caused by humans (81 percent to 29 percent) and is an extremely serious problem (58 percent to 11 percent), but they’re also more likely to act. The partisan split goes down the line for everything from recycling (85 percent to 69 percent) to vegetarianism (11 percent to 4 percent).

Younger people are also more inclined to take serious actions with the environment in mind. Fully 22 percent of 18-to-34-year-old respondents use public transit (compared to 12 percent for older generations), and 24 percent say they decided to have fewer or no children out of environmental concerns — though plans can change, particularly for younger millennials.

Perhaps respondents would be willing to limit their own car use but don’t want the government involved in regulating it.

Erin Pinkus, research scientist, SurveyMonkey

Tough action gets even less popular when it’s a mandate. While 39 percent of all respondents said the government should tax carbon emissions from businesses, just 12 percent wanted fines for not recycling, 3 percent wanted government limits on family size and a mere 2 percent wanted government limits on personal car use. Has America’s love of the automobile really eclipsed even the love of its children? “Perhaps respondents would be willing to limit their own car use but don’t want the government involved in regulating it,” says Erin Pinkus, a research scientist at SurveyMonkey, who helped conduct the poll. Or perhaps driving is a necessity, she adds, given the lack of convenient public transportation in most parts of the country.

Terry Anderson, executive director of the Property and Environment Research Center in Montana, who advocates free market solutions to environmental problems, says people will rebel against government limits on their behavior. The feds, he says, should help us adapt to a changing climate by ending subsidized flood, hurricane and crop insurance. That way homeowners will avoid areas vulnerable to rising seas and farmers will diversify their crops. “I don’t think the federal government is capable of undertaking some sort of major tax program on carbon, or cap-and-trade program on carbon emissions or more strict regulations on carbon output,” Anderson says. “The people, as your poll suggests, won’t stand for it. And Republican or Democrat, no sensible politician is going to stand up against that tide.” Still, a carbon tax does reach 59 percent support among Democrats — and left-leaning California imposed a cap-and-trade system for emissions credits in 2013.

People will take difficult actions if they are guaranteed an impact: 51 percent said they’d be willing to give up access to their smartphone for a year if it made a difference in slowing or reversing climate change. (A recent study in the Journal of Cleaner Production found that by 2020 the carbon footprint of smartphones — from manufacture to recharging to a data center processing every text message — would surpass that of laptops, desktops and displays.)

But impact can be tricky to measure. Whitley’s website has a carbon footprint calculator that adds up annual driving, flying and home energy costs — leaving out plenty of carbon-causing aspects of life. COTAP encourages people to donate at $9.90 per ton of carbon they produce to fund an offsetting activity in an impoverished part of the world, such as forest protection or planting trees. Critics compare buying offsets to pre-Reformation Catholics purchasing indulgences for their sins — an analogy that drives Whitley batty, because he says the offsets are not just a guilt trip but carry tangible impact. “It’s not to go into the thornbush of ‘woe is me, shame on you,’” he says. “It comes down to good old-fashioned cleaning up after oneself. I liken it to: You put your trash out on the curb, and you pay somebody to come pick it up.” Plus, it’s easier than giving up meat.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that COTAP’s carbon offsets include installing solar panels.

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