"We've entered a new era" of public concern about climate change, survey finds

By Jeff Berardelli

/ CBS News

Could 2019 be the hottest year on record?

Americans are growing more convinced than ever that climate change is having an impact on our world, and the issue is becoming a more important part of their lives. That is the conclusion of a new report by the Yale Program on Climate Communication and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, based on a survey of Americans nationwide.

About 72 percent of Americans now say that climate change is important to them, an increase of 9 percentage points since last March, and a 16-point increase since March 2015.

In addition, the number of Americans convinced that climate change is mostly caused by humans has spiked to 62 percent, a jump of 8 points in just one year.

"My bet is that we've entered a new era of public concern about climate change" says Dr. Ed Maibach, director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

An October 2018 CBS News poll found a similar result, with 61 percent of Americans saying global warming is human-caused, up 7 percent from April 2018. Four years earlier, an AP-GFK poll found only 33 percent were extremely or very confident that was true.

Professor Michael B. Gerrard, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, is cautiously encouraged. "Sometimes public opinion shifts quickly, as it did with smoking and same-sex marriage," he said.

Maibach feels that may be happening now with climate change. "We appear to have reached an inflection point in that half of Americans now see climate change as happening here, now, to us — and they feel that they and/or members of their family will be harmed by it."

Climate change has often been thought of as a distant problem whose impact might appear decades or centuries in the future. But recent studies show that extreme weather over the past few years has been supercharged by climate change. People are connecting the dots through their real-life experience.

"More Americans are now personally experiencing concrete, harmful impacts from climate change with their own eyes. People are more convinced when they learn experientially than when they learn analytically," says Maibach.

The numbers in the Yale-George Mason study support that. About half of Americans surveyed believe this past year's extreme events, such as Hurricanes Florence and Michael and the California wildfires, were made worse by climate change.

Potential economic impact of climate change on businesses

Furthermore, nearly half of Americans (46 percent) now say they have personally experienced the effects of global warming, an increase of 15 percentage points since March 2015.

But opinions vary widely based on political affiliation. The CBS News poll found 85 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents agree climate change is caused by human activity. While most Republicans acknowledge climate change is happening, only 34 percent of them agree humans are responsible.

Another large gap in perception emerges when people are asked about the scientific consensus on this issue. According to the Yale-George Mason study, only 1 in 5 Americans realize there is overwhelming scientific agreement that climate change is caused by humans. This is called the Consensus Gap.

Various studies have indeed shown that approximately 97 percent of climate scientists are convinced climate change is caused mainly by humans.

"If the public understood that virtually all climate scientists were convinced that human-caused climate change was happening, and that it was serious, then the public would demand action," Maibach explains.

Scientists warn that fast and bold action is needed to avoid what some have called an "unprecedented climate future." But so far congressional action on climate change has been slow, and President Trump has cast doubt on whether any action is necessary.

Maibach believes the public's increasing concern about climate change will make a difference, especially when politicians are convinced that "their voters will hold them accountable for taking action or not taking action."

Gerrard feels that we may be reaching a threshold. "The cascade of alarming scientific studies, the unprecedented wildfires, hurricanes and floods, and the activation of young voters who see their futures at risk may be giving action on climate change an unstoppable momentum."

First published on January 25, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Jeff Berardelli

Meteorologist Jeff Berardelli is a CBS News Climate & Weather Contributor. Follow him on Twitter @WeatherProf.

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