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How Americans Are Reacting To The Maui Wildfires

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly-ish polling roundup.

Five days after a brush fire ignited on the Hawaiian island of Maui, quickly spreading across the island and destroying the town of Lahaina in one of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history, the state’s governor pointed to climate change as a major factor. “That level of destruction, and a fire hurricane, something new to us in this age of global warming, was the ultimate reason that so many people perished,” Democratic Gov. Josh Green said on Aug. 13.

As ABC News and other outlets have reported, his remarks were something of an oversimplification. Climate change wasn’t responsible for the fires on its own, according to scientists who have emphasized that multiple factors — like naturally occurring weather patterns and the introduction of non-native plants — appear to have worked in tandem with climate influences to make the fires so deadly. But the connection between natural disasters and climate change is one that politicians are increasingly making to justify urgent action on environmental issues. 

Polling shows that some Americans are thinking the same way: According to a poll conducted by YouGov for The Economist from Aug. 12-15, 37 percent of Americans believed that the recent wildfires in Maui are primarily the result of climate change, while a similar share (36 percent) said these events just happen from time to time, and 21 percent said they weren’t sure. But under those topline numbers, there’s a big partisan divide. According to the poll, 63 percent of voters who supported President Biden in 2020 think that the recent wildfires in Maui are primarily the result of climate change, while the same share of Trump voters just think these things happen from time to time.

This is part of a much broader pattern in how Americans appear to be processing the wave of natural disasters and extreme weather events that have hit various parts of the U.S. over the summer: Democrats blame climate change, while Republicans don’t.

Most Americans agree that the weather across the U.S. has gotten weirder — and in some cases, deadlier — over the past few years. According to an Ipsos poll conducted in April, two-thirds (67 percent) of respondents agreed that unusual weather for the season has gotten more frequent in their area than compared to 10 years ago, and a solid majority (60 percent) thought the weather has also become more intense. The forms of extreme weather that people pointed to varied by region — a higher share (63 percent) of people in the West said that extreme heat has become more frequent in their area, while people in the Northeast were more likely to say that flooding (47 percent) or hurricanes and tropical storms (45 percent) have become more intense. But overall, majorities of Americans in all regions agreed that unusual weather is happening more often. 

On the whole, Americans are worried about what that extreme weather could mean for their own safety and comfort. A Leger/The Canadian Press survey conducted in July found that 68 percent of Americans are concerned that they will experience increasingly hot summers and more heat waves where they live in the future, while 32 percent were not concerned. And people are modifying their behavior as a result: According to a YouGov/CBS News poll conducted in July, 65 percent of Americans said that their area has experienced what they would consider to be unusually high temperatures in recent weeks, and majorities said that they had gone outside less often (64 percent) or advised kids or family to stay indoors more (51 percent) as a result of the high temperatures.

But even on the question of whether the weather is getting more extreme, there are partisan differences. The April Ipsos poll, for example, found that only 51 percent of Republicans agree that unusual weather has gotten more frequent in their area over the past 10 years, compared to 85 percent of Democrats. Similarly, Republicans (44 percent) are less likely than Democrats (77 percent) to say that the weather has gotten more intense, with major divides in perception of how intense weather events like extreme heat and wildfires have become.

The gap between Republicans and Democrats on extreme weather feeds into a much longer-running divide over the need for additional environmental protections, and whether the cost of addressing environmental problems is worth paying. In the past, Republicans and Democrats weren’t on the same page about whether climate change was happening at all — but now, there’s a bigger fissure on why the weather is getting more extreme, and how the government should intervene. Democrats are, on the whole, much likelier to say that natural disasters are related to climate change and that action is needed, while Republicans are more likely to say that the weather isn’t getting more extreme, or that it’s due to natural forces that don’t require human intervention to address.

The YouGov/CBS News poll found that 73 percent of people who said they voted for Biden in 2020 said that the heat waves across the country earlier this summer made them more worried about climate change, while the same share of Trump voters said that the high temperatures hadn’t changed their opinion about climate change. And while partisans are less divided on whether climate change is actually happening — in the Ipsos poll, only 17 percent of Republicans and 2 percent of Democrats thought climate change didn’t exist — Democrats (75 percent) are much likelier than Republicans to blame human activity (22 percent), while Republicans (46 percent) are more likely than Democrats (13 percent) to blame natural patterns. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Ipsos poll found that 90 percent of Democrats are concerned about climate change, compared to only 34 percent of Republicans.

And Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on how the government should respond to extreme weather either. According to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in May and June, 66 percent of Democrats think it’s a good idea for the federal government to limit new construction in areas at high risk of extreme weather, compared to 42 percent of Republicans. Sixty percent of Democrats think it’s a good idea for the government to provide financial assistance for communities to rebuild after extreme weather events, compared to 45 percent of Republicans. Providing financial assistance for communities to relocate is even more divisive: 62 percent of Democrats say it’s a good idea for the federal government to do this for areas at high risk of extreme weather, compared to only 32 percent of Republicans.

All of this means that Republicans and Democrats aren’t just thinking about the causes of natural disasters like the Maui wildfires differently — they’re also likely to have very different perspectives on the appropriate government response. It’s possible that will change, though, if more people start experiencing extreme weather over the next few years. The Pew poll found that majorities of Republicans who say extreme weather has happened in their community over the past year attribute those unusual weather patterns to climate change. But given that Republicans are less likely to think the weather is out of the ordinary in the first place, the partisan gap on this question may be slow to close.

Other polling bites

  • Why do most gun owners have a firearm? According to a June 5-11 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, it’s for protection. The poll found that 72 percent of gun owners say a major reason why they own a gun is protection, a much higher share than other options like hunting or sport shooting. The vast majority (81 percent) of gun owners say they feel safer owning a gun, and only 12 percent say they worry about having guns in the home.
  • This month, former President Donald Trump was indicted in two separate cases involving his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, and recent polls suggest that Americans are taking the charges seriously. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted from Aug. 10-14 found that 54 percent of Americans think Trump should be prosecuted on criminal charges for allegedly attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 election. An Ipsos/ABC News poll conducted Aug. 15-16, meanwhile, found that 63 percent of Americans think the most recent set of charges — which were handed down by a grand jury in Georgia last week — are serious.
  • Affirmative action in higher education might have been unpopular, but now that the Supreme Court has declared it unconstitutional, another widely disliked admissions practice could get more attention. A Data for Progress survey conducted from Aug. 10-11 found that 65 percent of likely voters think children of alumni and major donors to a university often have an unfair advantage when applying to that specific college or university, and 70 percent of likely voters agree that colleges and universities should not be allowed to consider legacy status when deciding which students to admit.

Biden approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,1 40.9 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 54.4 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -13.4 points). At this time last week, 40.0 percent approved and 55.0 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -15.0 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 40.8 percent and a disapproval rating of 55.1 percent, for a net approval rating of -14.2 points.


  1. As of 5 p.m. Eastern on Friday, Aug. 18.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.


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