Mixed Signals: More Americans Are Taking Climate-Friendly Action, But Fewer Say Those Actions Can Slow Climate Change

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"Mixed Signals: More Americans Are Taking Climate-Friendly Action, But Fewer Say Those Actions Can Slow Climate Change"

A new survey shows that more Americans are taking actions to reduce climate pollution; however, fewer Americans actually believe those actions will do something about climate change.

The survey, conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, shows an increase in the number of people who take alternative transportation or purchase energy efficient light bulbs compared with 2008. However, even while a majority of respondents still said their individual actions could reduce global warming, that number was down 16 points since 2008.


These results also bear out in individual political action. Even though 70% of respondents said that the world is warming, only 12% said they had contacted an elected official about the subject. Here are some of the top findings from the survey:

  • The number of Americans who say they “always” or “often” walk or bike instead of driving is at its highest recorded level (25%) and has risen considerably since March (up 14 points). Americans today are also more likely say they use public transportation or carpool (17%), returning to a level last observed in November 2008 (18%).
  • Compact fluorescent light bulbs continue to be adopted by the American consumer, with 57% now reporting that most or all of the light bulbs in their home are CFLs – up from 40% in November 2008.
  • Three Americans in ten (32%) say that in the past 12 months they have given business to a company as a reward for their steps to reduce global warming. Nearly a quarter also say that in the past 12 months they have punished companies for opposing steps to reduce global warming by not purchasing their products (24%).
  • About one in ten (11%) have contacted a government official about global warming by letter, email, or phone, while 15% have volunteered or donated money to an organization working to reduce global warming.
  • Americans who contact a government official about global warming have become much more likely to urge them to take action to reduce it (89%, up 17 percentage points since 2010).
  • No matter what their personal beliefs about global warming, many Americans say they have friends who have different views than their own. In fact, more are likely to have friends who disagree than agree with them about global warming.
  • Since 2008, Americans have become less likely to say a number of actions taken by themselves and others can reduce global warming.  Americans have become less confident that their individual actions to save energy will reduce their own contribution to global warming (32%, down 16 points since 2010).

The drop in the number of people who say that they can slow climate change with individual action is not that surprising. Since 2008, destructive extreme weather events have increased substantially and messages from science and energy experts have become much more dire. At the same time, press coverage of climate change — including substantive policy discussions and personal actions people are taking — has dropped precipitously since a peak in 2008/2009.

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14 Responses to Mixed Signals: More Americans Are Taking Climate-Friendly Action, But Fewer Say Those Actions Can Slow Climate Change

  1. Steve says:

    Thanks for the more accurate assessment of the Yale survey. The Times’ report led with the “glass is half empty” approach.

    I think this actually shows progress, as people realize it’s going to take more than folks changing their light bulbs to avert further catastrophe. They’re seeing that we need a national price on carbon, preferably a direct fee on fossil fuels that gives revenue back to consumers.

  2. My name here says:

    I wish CCCC & YPCCC would look into what citizens think is the way to solve the problem, & how these citizens think they can contribute most effectively toward making this happen.

    Maybe someone should poll the Yale and GMU organizers first, & find out how they themselves would answer; this could be enlightening.

  3. Tim says:

    The number of Americans who say they “always” or “often” walk or bike instead of driving is at its highest recorded level (25%) and has risen considerably since March (up 14 points).

    As someone who really does bike-commute 85-90% of the time, I would love to believe that, but I don’t. If the number of bikers and walkers had more than doubled since last March, it would be very apparent. The claim makes me question the methodology of the survey.

  4. Brooks Bridges says:

    “At the same time, press coverage of climate change — including substantive policy discussions and personal actions people are taking — has dropped precipitously since a peak in 2008/2009.”

    We can and we must change this by pushing attendance 350.org’s President’s Day rally in DC. The impact will be exponentially proportional to the numbers so please contact any group you know and ask them to post it on their site. And please sign up and get others to also.

    act.350.org/signup/presidentsday/

    Without massive government action soon we cannot win this battle.

  5. D says:

    Tim,
    Don’t forget that “always or often” is a very vague phrase!

    • My name here says:

      “is a very vague phrase!”

      Are these organizations’ reports, or the surveys, ever peer reviewed?
      (My surmise: no)

      • My name here says:

        (Actually not a surmise, a guess.)

        • dick smith says:

          This summer Anthony Liesowitz talked for an hour about his surveys as a featured speaker at a Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) conference. He was unbelievable credible and informed on climate polling. You should surmise or assume he cares about the issue, ha been polling it for years, and got it right.

  6. The most valuable thing about voluntary actions to reduce GHG emissions is that they raise awareness. By itself, volunteerism is about as effective at combating climate change as it would be to end the fighting in Syria. But it does perform the critical role of altering the moral mindset: we need to do something, and I’m prepared to pitch in and cooperate.

    It’s a lot like consciousness-raising around civil rights and the Vietnam War. Once enough people said, this is wrong, and I’m going to alter my personal behavior regarding it, the substantial things that actually could move the change forward (the Civil Rights Act, the Treaty of Paris) could be put in place.

    Leadership can’t take people where they don’t want to go. People’s doubt that their personal efforts will be effective has a very positive implication. It signals they’re ready to do something serious, something that takes organized commitment at the highest level, just like fighting a war does. Which is, at this late stage of the problem, our only hope.

    • Centrist Steve says:

      This observation is exactly right.

      Once you start having increasing numbers of people engaged in being a small part of the solution (and less a part of the problem), those people become less tolerant of politicians, corporations, and individuals who are not. This is how culture changes, and on this issue, cultural change will be needed to ultimately push the political process (particularly at the US national level).

      But people need to go well beyond changing light bulbs and taking occasional bicycle rides and checking survey boxes that say “climate change concerns me” and “the government should do something about it.” They need big-ticket involvement — moving work closer to home or vice versa, buying hybrids and EVs only, installing rooftop solar, etc., or just a conscientious across-the-board commitment to less waste, less consumption, less unnecessary travel, and greater energy efficiency.

      When they do, and see fellow citizens and corporations who do not, they will increasingly shun the shitheads (just like society gradually came to shun smokers in closed quarters and blatantly racist/sexist individuals). They will regularly boycott –doesn’t even need to be an organized boycott — the problem corporations while patronizing the more climate-friendly and proactive ones.

      This blog would greatly benefit from sprinkling in more and more “what YOU can do” articles. The constant dire climate predictions (“and, get this, it’s even WORSE than we thought”) while very important to know, can be depressing and paralyzing if not combined with some positive and concrete guidance.

      I enjoy your comments, Change in the Weather, and read with interest the first few chapters of your book. Well done, and best of luck with it.

      • Thanks, Steve.

        Your travel comment hits a nerve. My wife loves travel, as do many of my most socially-conscious friends. The idea of recreational travel nauseates me. Decadent. That’s the only word for it. But I keep quiet because I don’t want to alienate the people I care about. My wife knows I feel this way and it comes between us.

        I explain my reluctance to travel by focusing on all the bother instead of telling them the big reason: I hate putting that much CO2 in the air just to go sightseeing and eat dwindling species. That would be a holier-than-thou message. But I’m no martyr; I do other wasteful things. It’s a damned hard problem to be part of “normal” society when the norms are superficially positive but at their core destructive. It’s the tragedy of the commons writ large.

        We still have a way to go before people really start connecting their personal behavior to the risk they’re creating. I hope that day comes soon.

    • Jane Mcguire says:

      Thanks. I appreciate the analogy with Vietnam. It helps me keep going. I still remember organizing towards, and celebrating the end of, that war.

      Motivating people to act on climate change is tough. I do residential energy audits in Seattle, which strongly encourages people to improve the efficiency of their homes. It’s a great job, and Seattle has great leadership on the issue, but I still find it hard to move people. Thanks for the reminder about Vietnam. That one was tough, too.

  7. Bill Goedecke says:

    It is hard to change a way of life. I am sitting here in my cold kitchen drinking my tea. I love my tea, which is from India (Assam) with honey and soy milk (the soy milk in a carton that can only be thrown away). The fridge is humming behind me. I have asked my roomies present and past about disconnecting the freeze, just to save the energy. People were horrified at the idea. I tried to grow veggies in the backyard – landlord took over the back yard – he wanted to do the gardening. All sorts of stuff like that. I am a part of this huge unsustainable system and I will fall with this system. I need to find the quietude and stability inside to be able to abide by whatever changes that may befall me!

  8. gingerbaker says:

    Why are you folks feeling guilty about using electricity?

    Why are we talking about the need for individuals to sacrifice quality of life to ameliorate climate change?

    Why are we even talking about the role of the individual when we are not talking about the role of government to fix this crisis?

    There is no need to feel guilty about using electricity if all our electricity is from carbon-free sources.

    There is no need to lower our standard of life in order to use less energy – IF all our energy comes from abundant renewable sources.

    There is no need to have carbon taxes IF we all get our electricity from renewables at a price that is LESS than what dirty electricity costs – because there will be zero demand for dirty energy.

    And we know that if we are to survive global warming we CAN NOT use dirty energy in our future. So we need to get to 100% renewable, carbon-free energy as soon as possible, right?

    And the fastest, easiest, most cost effective way to do that is to have a federal program to generate all our electricity from renewables. Instead of talking about what individuals can do, we should be talking about what our Federal government should be doing to provide us with low-cost clean electricity. And they are doing almost nothing. Because nobody is demanding that they do more!

    No, everybody is instead talking about carbon taxes, as if that will magically create renewable-based electricity. People are talking about individual sacrifice, as if that will magically create renewable-based electricity.

    People are talking about using less energy (some people are actually talking about deliberately crashing the world’s economic system, so that we we use less energy!) As if that will magically create renewables-based electricity.

    But all we really need is a lot of cheap, renewable electricity. And the way to get that IS TO BUILD IT, for heaven’s sake.

    And that is the role of the Federal government, isn’t it? Making large-scale infrastructure investments for the public good?