Report: Record number of Americans 'very worried' about climate change

Yale, GMU release report Tuesday

By JACQUELINE HOWARD, CNN
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

(CNN) - More Americans now say that climate change is a real threat to themselves and others, following a trend of mounting public concern around global warming.

That's according to a climate report released Tuesday by researchers at Yale University and George Mason University that tracked public opinions about climate change in a nationwide survey last year.

Researchers at those universities have surveyed adults across the United States about their thoughts on climate change since 2008 and released the survey findings in an annual climate report.

In the new report, about 3 in 10, or 29%, of survey respondents said they are "very worried" about global warming, marking the highest level since the surveys began in 2008.

According to the latest survey data, "Americans who think they personally will be harmed by climate change is up 7 points since March; that their family will be harmed is up 9 points; that people in their community will be harmed by climate change is up 8 points; and so on," said Anthony Leiserowitz, a senior research scientist and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, who was an author of the report.

"What that all basically indicates -- and we see this in a number of other measures as well -- is that Americans are increasingly understanding that climate change is here and now," he said.

'Those who think it is not happening has stayed pretty consistent'

The survey in the new report, which included 1,114 respondents, showed that the proportion who say they are "very worried" about global warming has more than tripled since its lowest point in 2011.

About 7 in 10 survey respondents, or 73%, indicated they think that global warming is happening -- the highest percentage since the survey began in 2008, according to the report.

Those who think global warming is happening outnumber those who think it isn't by more than a 5-to-1 ratio, the report found.

"While there's been an increase in the proportion of Americans who think global warming is happening -- it's now at an all-time high of 73% -- those who think it is not happening has stayed pretty consistent and steady in this latest study at 14%," Leiserowitz said.

There are three possible factors driving this rise in how many adults in the United States view climate change is a current concern, according to the report.

"One is the record-setting extreme disasters that we've all either experienced directly or watched unfold on the television screen and two massive hurricanes that did incredible damage in the United States and then, of course, the horrific wildfires that tore apart California," Leiserowitz said.

About half of the survey respondents said they think global warming worsened the 2018 wildfires in the western region of the United States and/or Hurricanes Florence and Michael.

Additionally, two separate major climate reports were released last year that could have swayed public opinions around global warming, Leiserowitz said.

One was from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and found that humans have only until 2030 to stem catastrophic climate change. The other was the United States national climate assessment report, which found that climate change could shrink the US economy and kill thousands by the end of the century.

The third factor influencing public opinion could be the media coverage of such reports, Leiserowitz said.

The new report has some limitations, including that the findings are based on self-reported data in surveys.

'There are huge health gains to be had'

Overall, the new report and past reports help take the pulse on where people in the United States stand in regard to climate change, said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, co-director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who was not involved in the report.

"It's clear that many more people are seeing climate as an urgent issue of the present and that it's harming them now," Bernstein said.

"I also was struck to see the numbers of people who identify climate change as happening and the percent of those people, some 62%, who feel helpless about climate change. Almost the same percent are angry," he said. "At the same time, about half [52%] also said they were hopeful."

There are changes people can make to their daily lives that could benefit not only their health but the climate. In other words, "there are huge health gains to be had when we do what we need to do to address climate change," Bernstein said.

"I hope that this report invigorates a discussion about how actions that address climate change -- burning less fossil fuels, increasing our use of active transportation, bicycling, walking, eating healthier diets, less red meat, more fruits and vegetables -- that these actions will make us healthier right now in our own lives," he said. "At the same time, it will address what is, as the survey shows, a problem that is concerning to most Americans. So it's a win-win."

'Climate change isn't just a future problem, it's hurting us already'

The findings in the new report are "extremely encouraging," said Dr. Mona Sarfaty, executive director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health and director of the program on climate and health at George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication.

"An increasing number of Americans appear to understand that climate change isn't just a future problem, it's hurting us already," said Sarfaty, who was not involved in the new report.

"It's very helpful when citizens themselves understand their community is being harmed by climate change, because this makes them more likely to support the kinds of preparations and actions that organizations in their community should be taking," she said. "Public health departments, hospitals and community health centers need to be involved in these actions, but so do a range of other government agencies and community organizations."

For instance, a World Health Organization report released in December found that meeting the commitments put forth in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement to tackle climate change could save millions of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars by the middle of the century.

"The bottom line is that climate change is harming people in communities across America already. Fortunately, an increasing number of Americans are coming to realize that," Sarfaty said. "Those citizens should be asking the mayors and county council members in their town: What actions are you taking to ensure that our health isn't needlessly harmed by climate change?"

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