As a general rule, people tend to care more about political issues when they’re affected by them directly. You care about healthcare when you lose insurance, you pay attention to taxes when your rates go up, and so on. This is why, among climate change advocates, the hope is that once people are affected by climate events, they’ll be more amenable to taking action. Unfortunately, in the United States today, that does not appear to be the case.
The Guardian recently did a deep dive on this topic, reporting from some local areas in Northern California that have been engulfed by wildfires. The key question they asked was: After seeing these blazes firsthand, have people begun to change their opinions about the importance of climate science? In Redding, California, the answer in many cases remains no.
“I think there’s a lot of bad science behind what people are calling global warming,” said Doug LaMalfa, a Republican who serves California’s 1st district in the House of Representatives. “I’m not going to quibble here today about whether it’s man, or sunspot activity, or magma causing ice shelves to melt.”
One would expect a massive series of fires to make a difference in public opinion, but that hasn’t been the case. The citizens of Redding remain skeptical about climate change, far more than the average American. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, only 35 percent of Redding residents believe that global warming can harm them personally. Nationwide, this figure is closer to 40 percent—and perhaps not surprisingly, there’s a strong correlation between how people answer this question and how often they vote for Democrats over Republicans.
That’s the key point here. When it comes to people’s opinions on climate change, it seems to be partisan politics, not personal experience, that makes the difference.
“If you gave me one factor to explain someone’s belief, I’d ask you what party they belong to,” said Christopher Borick, director of the National Surveys on Energy and Environment. “Among Republicans, about half think there’s evidence of climate change, but only a third think it’s anthropogenic in its roots.”