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Here’s why 3 in 10 Americans think climate change isn’t a big deal

by nytime
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Despite scientists’ urgent pleas to address climate change, some Americans don’t see it as a priority, and others say it’s not real.

Overall, less than half – 46% – of Americans say human activity is the primary reason for climate change. By contrast, 26% say warming is mostly caused by natural patterns in the environment, and another 14% don’t believe there’s any evidence that the Earth is warming at all.

About 3 in 10 say climate change action is not too important (17%) or should not be taken at all (11%).

Pew Research Center explored the “why” behind the views and beliefs of those who see climate action as a lower priority, so it conducted in-depth interviews with 32 US adults who hold variations of these views. (Pew stressed that the 32 interviewees are not representative of all US adults.)

The interviews were conducted virtually in May 2023 with people in the Midwest, the Mountain West, the South, the Southwest, and coastal Florida. Pew selected a broad mix of interviewees across political party, ideology, gender, and education.

Here are seven common themes that emerged across those conversations.

Why climate change isn’t a priority to 3 in 10 Americans

Climate change is seen as part of the Earth’s natural cycles and humans play a small role. Most of the 32 interviewees agreed that the Earth’s climate is changing, but they typically explained the changes as part of evolving natural patterns. So because they see climate change as natural, they feel that humans have little to no control over these changes.

One man in his 50s in Florida said, “I think that [extreme weather events] are not happening more. … It may seem like things are happening more and more, but I think that just that’s the cycle of life, the cycle of Earth.”

Suspicion around claims that climate change is urgent. One of the most common frustrations participants had is how other people talk about climate change as an emergency that requires immediate action. Many said that when they hear these arguments, they react with disbelief and increased scrutiny of the motives behind such statements.

A man in his 20s in the Midwest said, “People who are alarmist tend to want really drastic policies that seem to not make sense, so it kind of makes me disbelieve the other things they’re saying.”

Climate scientists are perceived as experts, but they’re also seen as having an agenda. Many interviewees wanted to hear more from climate scientists, but some of the same participants also said they don’t fully trust them because they think they might have financial motivations and personal biases.

A woman in her 40s in the Mountain West said, “I think that scientists, if they worked hard for their degree, it’s good to listen to them. I do always wonder, with anybody – anybody – if they have an agenda. It’s looking into maybe where their education is, what groups or environmental groups are they a part of. What is their main focus? And then, is there an agenda behind what they’re saying?”

Deep misgivings about whether the information that traditional news media shares is true. Most of the 32 interviewees described the media’s climate change coverage as biased and untrustworthy. Some said that media outlets are motivated more by profit than the need to be accurate.

A man in his 40s in the South said, “Networks and radio and newspapers and television, they’re all getting paid to tell me something. And if they don’t have my attention then they’re not getting paid. So they’ll do whatever they need to get my attention… It’s all about ratings and, you know, getting people to watch.”

Some support for using more renewable energy, alongside concerns about the pace and practicality of the transition. Participants shared their views on renewable energy and EV government policies. Some were open to the idea of a renewable energy transition but wanted a slower pace of change. Others wanted to stick to fossil fuels because they think that renewables are unreliable.

A woman in her 30s in the Midwest said, “It’s not practical for everyone to purchase a Tesla or be able to have the ability to plug in a car at their home or to, quite frankly, pay to charge up a car and have an additional expense or additional changes to their lifestyle that is always productive or applicable.”

A woman in her 40s in the Mountain West said, “We don’t have all the batteries to make the electric cars. Things like that. I don’t see where that’s an improvement. I think that fossil fuels have gotten us this far, and I think that they’re fine.”

Support for governmental policies as long as they don’t infringe on individual rights. While interviewees saw less urgency on climate change action, they expressed an openness to some types of government action on the environment, particularly at the local level. However, they commonly said that government regulations shouldn’t limit people’s freedoms, restrict individual choice, or burden people financially.

A man in his 40s in the Southwest said, “I think the best way to protect the environment is just educating people on what steps we can take that aren’t extreme, meaning don’t ban gas combustion vehicles. Don’t ban gas stoves. Give people the information. Let them decide what they want to do. But when you start to force things upon people, that’s when people become skeptical…”

Few of the interviewees see a need for direct personal action on climate change, but many see value in individual efforts to help protect the environment. A man in his 50s in Coastal Florida said, “It is so very important that we take care of our planet. Let’s not litter. Let’s have good clean water. Let’s not do anything that’s going to hurt our planet that we live in. And so that’s what I feel about everybody’s duty, to take care of – everybody takes care of their own little piece, and I think it’s going to be fine.”

Read more: This is what Americans really think about climate change

Photo: “Downed trees and power lines in Bartow, FL following Hurricane Ian” by State Farm is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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