President Biden and his entourage will be headed to the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow this weekend to demonstrate where the country stands on addressing climate change. If they wanted to make a blanket statement at the summit about how Americans view climate change, they could say most of us think it’s happening (76 percent, according to a September survey from Yale Program on Climate Change Communication) and most of us worry about it at least a fair amount (65 percent, according to a March survey from Gallup). Everything else about climate change, much like everything else, depends on your political affiliation, age, race and education. Zoom in again, however, and where you call home may just be the deciding factor.
As my colleagues Alex Samuels and Mackenzie Wilkes wrote earlier this month, Democrats and Republicans are deep in a squabble over a budget bill containing a number of climate provisions — actions that Americans broadly want. But Americans are a lot more divided on how important it is to fight global warming: In a January 2020 survey from the Pew Research Center, 78 percent of Democrats said dealing with climate change should be a top priority for the executive and legislative branches, while only 21 percent of Republicans said the same. Instead of favoring government regulations to solve climate change, a majority of Republicans are hoping private businesses and technology will help combat climate change — now and into the future.
Under the political affiliation umbrella, differences on how Americans view climate change follow a well-known demographic trend. According to Gallup’s combined polling from 2017 to 2021, younger people are more likely than older Americans to worry about global warming, to think we’re causing it and to think that it will pose a serious risk. That goes for younger Republicans, too, who are more likely than older Republicans to support government regulations to shift the country toward renewable energy sources, according to a 2020 survey from Pew. Those with at least some college education are also more likely to believe our activity contributes to climate change. And women — Republican and Democrat — are more concerned about and are more likely to change their lifestyle to protect the environment than men.
So we’re divided in all the ways we normally are, yet there is some space for unity in thinking we ought to do something about our warming earth. Let’s take a look at what role geography plays in how Americans experience climate change and how they want their government to act.
According to a study from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication,1 exactly who wants the government to act depends on where you ask.
As the map above shows, Americans in Coastal, Southern Border and Mountain West communities are the most likely to argue that climate change needs to be a high priority for the government. What these communities have in common is that they’re the most likely to feel the effects of a warming world.
Where Climate Change Hits The Hardest
Sixty-two percent of U.S. adults said climate change was affecting their local communities at least “some,” according to an October 2019 Pew survey. At a more granular level, Americans from different regions say that climate change is affecting their neighborhoods in disparate ways. For example, Americans living in the Pacific West2 and Mountain West3 were more likely than Americans in the Northeast and Midwest to say wildfires and threatened water sources are some of the major ways climate change is affecting their lives. A Pew survey from 2020 found that 70 percent of Americans who lived within 25 miles of a coastline said climate change was directly affecting them at least “some” — that included 45 percent of Republicans, a higher share compared to Republicans living further from the coast.
Unsurprisingly, Americans who said they were seeing the effects of climate change in their communities were more likely to be from regions that lean Democratic, like the Pacific coastal states and New England. Americans from those regions also stand out in their support of climate change legislation, such as fossil fuel regulations and carbon taxes.
Where Americans Support Climate Action
One of the key elements initially in the budget bill would have rewarded utility companies that increase their share of energy from renewable energy sources, known as the Clean Energy Performance Program (CEPP). While the CEPP is all but assured to be dropped from the bill due to a lack of support from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, 66 percent of Americans supported it when provided with a brief description of the program, according to a September survey from Data for Progress. Along the same lines of the CEPP, the Yale study asked Americans whether they would support requiring utilities to produce electricity from renewable energy sources, even if it would cost them an extra $100 per year. The share of residents in metropolitan areas who said they would support such a policy ranged from 7-to-13 percentage points higher than the national average.
Moving away from the big U.S. cities, the Texas counties along the U.S.-Mexico border lean Democratic, though they saw some of the biggest swings to the right in 2020, and demonstrate above-average support for climate change policies. Though most of these counties are considered rural, they display levels of support for climate legislation on par with those of major metropolitan areas. Looking at the map below in the border counties in the southernmost part of Texas, the share who said global warming will harm them personally ranges from 4-to-17 percent higher than the national average.
And when it comes to supporting strategies addressing climate change like taxing fossil fuel companies or setting strict carbon emission limits, we see a similar pattern for Texans living in the southernmost counties.
At the congressional level, the districts encompassing the border counties show levels of support comparable to urban districts around Houston and Dallas for provisions in the Green New Deal such as investment in clean energy jobs, lead removal and expanding clean energy tax credits, according to a 2019 Data for Progress survey.
America is physically and ideologically diverse, and that's reflected in how different parts of the country experience a warming planet. And when it comes to Americans’ feelings about addressing climate change or whose responsibility it should be, where they live just might trump their political affiliations. But Biden needs the Americans in Congress to bridge the divide to meet his goal to cut greenhouse gases in half by 2030 — movement on which would be nice to present in Scotland. That future isn’t so far off, but it remains to be seen how much longer we’ll be kicking the can down the road.