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Americans Were A Lot Less Worried About Climate Change Before Trump Took Office

As the science editor for The Atlantic, Ross Andersen struggled for years to find stories about climate change that readers would pay attention to. “Maximally apocalyptic headline and framing was the only way to get people in, and even those didn’t perform in huge ways,” he told me. But about eight months ago, that changed. The stories stayed basically the same. The readers, however, were suddenly paying a lot more attention.

FiveThirtyEight has seen its own uptick in traffic on climate change stories in the last six months, and science editors at BuzzFeed and Slate told me they’d noticed a similar trend. They’d had an easier time getting reader attention on climate change coverage before than Andersen had, but, over the last two years, without much else changing, their readers became more engaged with this topic, too. (All three sites declined to share detailed traffic numbers.)

And these examples from the media illustrate a bigger fact: Americans are just more interested in climate change, in general, than they used to be. Polls suggest that in the past two years, the American public started to believe more in climate change — and worry more about its impacts.

So what gives? Big natural disasters probably have something to do with it, but both the journalists and the sociologists I spoke to think there’s another factor at play. As Slate’s science editor, Susan Matthews, put it: The urgency of climate change was one thing before President Trump’s election and something else entirely after.

Polls show more Americans are concerned about climate change than they used to be. That much is evident in surveys done by researchers at Yale University and George Mason University. For instance, in March of 2015, 63 percent of Americans believed climate change was happening and 52 percent reported being worried about it. By December of 2018, belief had jumped to 73 percent — and 69 percent were worried.

In that shift, Erik Johnson sees the hand of politics. Johnson is a professor of sociology at Washington State University, where he studies environmental movements. A few years ago, he got interested in the question of whether support for environmental policy might go up as Gen Xers and millennials began to take over from older generations. Basically: When old people die, is it good for environmental policy support?

But that turned out to be the wrong question entirely. “As we got into it, we started to figure out that age cohorts don’t matter,” Johnson told me. Instead, the stats said that shifts in support for environmental spending — whether people believed it should go up or down — were more strongly correlated with things like politics and economics.

Last month, Johnson published research that tracked American support for environmental spending over time. Since 1973, public support for increased environmental spending has tended to grow during Republican administrations and decline during Democratic ones. Which means Americans are more likely to want the government to take more environmental action when the person in the White House is less likely to have environmentalism as a core focus of his policy.

That finding is in line with other research — last year, political scientist Matt Grossman wrote here at FiveThirtyEight about how policies of all kinds become more popular when the party that supports them is not in power. And while Johnson’s work focuses on environmental spending as a broad category, he told me the effect would likely be even more extreme for a specific issue like climate change, since it is an even more political (and politically polarizing) subset of environmentalism.

In that context, it’s not terribly surprising that journalists have seen a post-Trump sea change in readership for climate stories. Nor is it a shock that the percentage of Americans who believe in and worry about climate change increased as President Barack Obama was leaving office and the Trump administration was coming in. And Yale data released last month showed that the percentage of Americans who say climate change is important to them personally increased from 61 percent to 72 percent since November 2016.

But why? To Johnson, it’s likely that what’s going on in politics drives support for environmental policy, rather than the other way around. “Majorities support [environmental] spending, but it’s not something people vote on,” he said. Polls have shown “the environment” well down the list of important issues voters focus on when making their choices.

This idea that climate beliefs are being driven by partisan politics is backed up by other research — like a 2015 study that looked at voting behavior and climate change skepticism in Australia and found that the way people voted tended to influence beliefs on climate more than their climate attitudes influenced votes. People choose a candidate and then adjust their beliefs to match.

That doesn’t neatly explain why the effect seems to happen in reverse here, however — why a population that elected a Republican candidate deeply skeptical of climate science would then become more concerned about climate change. But experts I spoke with told me that could be because politics isn’t just about who you vote for — it’s also about who you vote against. Sure, people who voted for Trump may find themselves gradually aligning their views on climate change with his over the following months and years. Meanwhile, however, the people who voted against him could be becoming even more certain that they believe climate change is happening and that they want to do something about it.

Other research suggests that anger over seeing a less-than-popular president dismiss their beliefs and poo-poo their solutions could drive those who already oppose Trump toward action. Susie Wang, a researcher at the Netherlands’ University of Groningen, has studied how people come to care about climate issues. In one study, she found that specific types of emotions about climate change are linked to different responses to climate policy. Active emotions like anger, guilt and shame were related to the strongest support for increased emissions-reduction policies, she said. Sadness and worry didn’t predict policy support in the same way.

Janet Swim, professor of psychology at Penn State, calls that “reactivism” and said it was also in keeping with her research. In one study that examined stereotypes about climate beliefs, the groups of people who everyone seemed to like the least were those who were most strongly concerned about climate change and those who were most strongly unconcerned. A president who holds an extreme view that climate change isn’t a problem, as Trump seems to, could easily create reactivists. “It’s somebody blocking a thing you want,” she said. “You don’t have a sense of control. You want to act against it. That’s pretty motivating for some people.”

And motivation is the thing that’s missing from people who are perceived as “not caring” about climate change. Kari Norgaard, a sociologist at the University of Oregon, studies people’s beliefs on climate change through qualitative methods — think essay questions and interviews instead of surveys. What she sees in her studies are many people who hold left-of-center political opinions and believe climate change is a real problem, but who aren’t really doing anything about it. Take Ross Andersen’s Atlantic readers. You might call them apathetic, but she frames it a different way: It’s more that the news about climate is too disturbing and overwhelming to actively engage with, she told me. All those efforts to get people over that hump and draw their attention — by, say, scaring them with apocalyptic headlines — can backfire, leaving people even more overwhelmed and worried. Instead, Norgaard said, her research suggests it’s more effective to appeal to things like peer pressure. Anger, like the kind that likely helped get a lot of Democratic representatives elected a few months ago, is also an effective motivator.

So does this all mean that Trump is good for environmental activism? Wellllll, not exactly. For one thing, political will remains the most powerful driver determining what actually gets done to combat climate change, Johnson said. That’s not to say that individuals have no power — the politicians who really have the power to shape how the country responds to climate change are surely watching the opinion polls. But, climate change is, in large part, an international-scale, top-down problem. In the U.S. alone, the problem is embedded in the infrastructure — we’ve built many highways but few trains, we give the fossil fuel industry billions more in subsidies than we give to renewable energy, and our economics are tied to the expectation that prosperity and increased energy use go hand in hand (though that’s started to change). The solutions are no less national.

Ultimately, it would probably take both public support and presidential support to reduce the threat of climate change. And, for the last 40 years, those two things haven’t lined up very well. It’s not just that support for increased environmental spending is higher under Republican presidents. It’s also that it’s lower under Democratic ones. And that’s true even for Democratic voters — people arguably primed to care about the environment. Even the Yale and George Mason public opinion polling shows a distinct drop-off in the Americans’ belief in and concern about climate change after Barack Obama was first elected. The numbers mostly remained significantly below 2008 levels until Obama was on his way out of office and the 2016 election was in full swing.

Shallow politics and deep-seated psychology seem to be combining to make Americans more concerned about climate change and more interested in solutions like the Green New Deal. But history suggests that the trend will flip again once the people who want to implement that kind of plan get elected.

“It is terribly ironic, isn’t it,” Johnson said.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.