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Feeling the Heat: Seeking Public Perceptions of Climate Change

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The VCU School Office of Research and Outreach
October 9, 2023

Climate change is one of the most far-reaching, and also contentious, challenges facing our world today. The scientific consensus shows that human activities are driving changes in our planet’s climate, though not all feel that the issue is urgent (or that it is even an issue at all). Instead, decisions related to if and how climate change should be mitigated are made based on party lines. If climate change is to be addressed, it will require cooperation from policymakers at the local, state and federal levels in the United States, as well as cooperation with other governments around the world. In addition, climate change is not just an environmental issue; it can also have significant impacts on housing policy, health policy, immigration policy, economic policy and more.

As policymakers work to understand and address current and future impacts of climate change, knowing how their constituents view the issue is a key step in the decision-making process. To learn more about public perceptions of climate change, the Summer 2023 Wilder School Commonwealth Poll asked the following questions:

  1. Have you or others in your household experienced impacts from climate change, such as coping with extreme heat, sea level rise, recurrent flooding or stronger and more frequent storms, including any resulting property damage or increased household costs?
  2. Are you concerned about pending future impacts of climate change, such as coping with extreme heat, sea level rise, recurrent flooding or stronger and more frequent storms, including any resulting property damage or increased household costs?

Findings from this poll show that the majority of households in Virginia (59 percent) reported they had not experienced any impacts from climate change, while 38 percent reported they had experienced impacts such as coping with extreme heat and sea level rise.

This poll obtained telephone interviews with a representative sample of 804 adults, ages 18 or older, living in Virginia from July 14 to 25, 2023. Statistical results were weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. A two-stage weighting procedure was used to weight this dual-frame sample by the demographic characteristics of gender, age, education, race, ethnicity, Hispanic origin, region of residence and personal phone use. The main geographic and demographic benchmarks were obtained from the 2022 American Community Survey (ACS). Weighting was accomplished using the Anesrake package, which implements the American National Election Study (ANES) weighting algorithm. The margin of error for the complete set of weighted data was +/- 5.46 percentage points.

However, despite the majority reporting that they had not directly experienced impacts of climate change, the majority (69 percent) did report that they are strongly or somewhat concerned about potential future impacts compared with 29 percent who said they are not concerned. By political affiliation, 92 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Independents said they are either strongly concerned or somewhat concerned about future impacts of climate change, while a majority of Republicans (55 percent) said that they are not concerned.

In addition to political party, differences in opinion were also seen based on age, race, ethnicity and income. Younger people (age 44 and below) were more likely than older people to report experiencing impacts of climate change, as were African American participants, Hispanic participants and those in lower income brackets (those making under $50,000 per year). Looking ahead, African American and Asian participants were more likely than white participants to say that they were concerned about pending future impacts of climate change, as were Hispanic participants, younger people (age 34 and below) and those making less than $50,000 per year.

From a nationwide perspective, an August 2023 survey from the Pew Research Center showed that only 37 percent of Americans said that climate change should be the top issue for policymakers. Instead, issues related to finance such as strengthening the economy and reducing healthcare costs were of more concern (similarly, the Summer 2023 Commonwealth Poll found that inflation/the rising cost of living was the top issues for Virginians as well).

As news of climate-related events continue, policymakers must listen. Events such as the recent flooding in New York City, wildfires in Hawaii, hurricanes and tropical storms and more, only seem to be increasing in their frequency. By listening to their constituents, consulting polls such as the ones cited in this article and staying up-to-date on the latest climate change developments, policymakers can help ensure that climate-related policies are reflective of and responsive to the communities they serve.

Author: The Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy advances research and training that informs public policy and decisionmaking to improve our communities. Drawing on the wide-ranging expertise of Wilder School faculty, we provide services including leadership development and training, economic and policy impact analysis, survey insights and program evaluation to clients in governments, nonprofits, businesses and the public, across Virginia and beyond. Twitter: @VCUWilderSchool

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