The Climate is Changing But Attitudes About It Aren’t: Polling Climate Change Over the Years

For the first time in presidential debate history, climate change was one of the focus issues last week in Nashville. And you might say, it’s about time. How so?

We’ve been talking about climate change for a long time. And, as it turns out, we’ve been saying a lot of the same things, and agreeing on a lot of the same solutions for a long time as well.

Since 2006, multiple surveys have shown roughly 2 in 3 Americans recognize climate change as a real threat and a relevant issue. But only this year, for the first time in an election year, has it cracked the top 3 issues Americans identify as important.

In a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll, 11% of those surveyed identified climate change as the biggest issue facing the country, placing third after the economy (20%) and coronavirus (13%), but coming in ahead of other hot-button issues such as health care (8%), race relations (8%), and immigration (3%).

And last month in honor of Climate Week, an art project in New York City’s Union Square was reprogrammed as a “Climate Clock” counting down to the point at which some scientists argue climate changes will be irreversible.

So, we wanted to understand how attitudes about climate change have, well, changed over the years.

Let’s start in May 2006, when Al Gore released his Oscar-winning climate change documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. It was among the first widely-seen warnings about what was then more commonly known as global warming. Around that time, the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes polled Americans about whether they favored or opposed legislation limiting US emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Nearly seven in ten respondents (68%) favored such legislation.

A few years later in 2008, the year polar bears were first listed as “threatened” by the U.S. Government in part due to polar ice melt, another survey found similar results. American Solutions for Winning the Future showed 65% of Americans were either very concerned or somewhat concerned about climate change.

In 2012 Hurricane Sandy caused significant damage in seven countries from the Caribbean to Canada. Climate scientists linked the size of the storm (the largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded) to the changing climate. A poll that year conducted by ORC International reported 66% of Americans viewed climate change as a real threat and that action was needed now or in the future.

Five years later, as the devastating 2017 fire season wreaked havoc in California, we framed a climate change question in economic terms since many politicians had argued addressing it would harm the economy. We asked Americans if they thought “addressing climate change should be given priority even at the risk of slowing economic growth”? A majority (57%) did.

Which brings us to this moment in time when climate change seems to have moved from an issue that a majority of Americans cared about, to one they believe is a top priority. We’ll keep polling to see if it stays that way.

This post was written by Marist Poll “College 2 Career” intern Sarah DeBellis.