New U.S. public opinion data on climate change contradicts Trump Administration policies

yale 2016 data mapAt the same time that the Trump Administration is moving to rescind the Clean Power Plan and other EPA rules on climate change, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication reports that 7 out of 10 Americans support limits on CO2 emissions by coal-fired power plants. Huh?

Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina, sums up the political calculus:  focused activists, like those in the Tea Party, can shape a politician’s approach because “those are the ones who can take you out at the next primary.” Mr. Inglis should know. He lost a 2010 primary election to Trey Gowdy, a Tea Party candidate who challenged his views on climate change.

Another polling mismatch reported by the Yale Program researchers is in perceiving personal risks from climate change.  Most people polled believe that climate change is already harming people in the United States and will harm people in developing countries and in future generations.  Yet only a fraction of the polled public – 40% – thinks that it will harm them personally.  This huh? moment is chalked up to the human brain’s inability to perceive and be alarmed by slow-onset threats like sea-level rise and moving disease vectors caused by the gradual warming of the atmosphere.

The climate change perception deception can also be seen geographically.  Poll data from Texas and Florida displayed on maps in the New York Times illustrate this point well. The climate change impacts felt in Florida include salt-water intrusion into drinking water sources and sunny day flooding.  In Texas, they include droughts in the west and hurricane damage on the state’s eastern Gulf Coast. Unsurprisingly, the more affected areas are populated by people who are more worried about climate change. Even though these threats can sneak up on us and varying degrees of scientific uncertainty can make us question the link between our greenhouse-gas emitting behaviors and global warming events, once they/we do, we begin to see climate change as a threat requiring action.

Which brings us back to the Trump Administration’s proposed policies and Mr. Inglis’ observation about how like-minded voters can affect members of Congress.  In addition to the support noted for placing limits on power plant emissions, the majority of those polled also favor government funding for renewable energy research (82%), regulating CO2 as a pollutant (75%), and requiring that renewables produce 20% of electricity (66%). Yet these policy actions are exactly the sort opposed by the White House. Could focused voters “take out” senators and representatives up for reelection in 2018 who side with the Trump Administration?