Is it any wonder, given the horrific onslaught of fires, floods, heat waves and other climate disasters we've experienced in the last year alone?
The share of the U.S. adult population alarmed by global warming nearly doubled over the last five years from 18% to an all-time high of 33%, with about half of that increase occurring between December 2020 and September 2021, researchers with Yale University and George Mason University reported Wednesday as part of a twice-a-year nationwide survey. About 59% of Americans are either "alarmed" or "concerned" about climate change and overall are becoming more engaged and supportive of policies to reduce planet-warming pollution.
The shift in public opinion is surely being driven by experience. A recent Washington Post analysis found that more than 40% of Americans live in a county that was hit by climate-related disasters in 2021—extremes that will get worse as the greenhouse gas-fueled rise in temperatures continues.
But what should alarm us even more is how out of step our government remains with Americans' fast-evolving views on climate change, and how little state and federal leaders have done in the face of an escalating emergency. Instead of acting decisively to slash emissions, switch to renewable energy and phase out fossil fuel production, our government is still stuck in the mud, even as U.S. greenhouse gas emissions roar back after a pandemic-induced lull.
President Joe Biden's "Build Back Better" bill includes $555 billion for renewable energy and clean transportation and would be the nation's biggest step ever to fight climate change, but it remains stalled in Congress. California, despite its reputation as an environmental champion, is not on track to meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals, targets that are themselves inadequate and now lag behind other states and countries. The state Legislature, meanwhile, has failed to advance ambitious and necessary climate legislation, including measures to set more stringent emissions reduction goals and begin phasing out oil drilling, a transition that will both help the planet and protect communities of color that are hit hardest by fossil fuel pollution and suffer outsize health damage.
Anthony Leiserowitz, who directs the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication that has been conducting the climate opinion survey for the last 14 years, said the "shockingly big jump" in respondents expressing alarm about global warming in recent months mirrors similarly sharp increases in the proportion of Americans who believe climate change is affecting weather, harming people and that they are personally experiencing the effects. That shift has coincided with a year of brutal climate disasters and media coverage that is increasingly connecting the dots between extreme weather and the warming climate.
Leiserowitz sees the emergence of "a fundamental shift in society" that could quickly spill over into political action, as with same-sex marriage and other fast-shifting issues before it. "You're beginning to see the coalescing of a powerful citizens' movement demanding that leaders act, both business leaders and government leaders."
Let's hope so. We are running out of time to avert catastrophic warming and we can't allow dawdling and weak-kneed politicians to jeopardize our future with inaction and half-measures that are increasingly at odds with public opinion and reality. Leaders must stop treating the destruction of the planet as one pet issue among many. It is the defining threat of our time, and they should be jolted into action.