Most Americans support Paris climate deal. But is it their urgent priority?

A new report finds that up to 71 percent of Americans want the United States to stay in the Paris climate deal, but views on whether climate change is a threat differ more widely.

Fernando Vergara/AP/File
A man wearing a Barack Obama mask takes part in a silent march calling for ambitious action to tackle climate change, in Bogota, Colombia, in November 2015.

President-elect Donald Trump’s goal to pull out of the Paris Agreement may go against a majority of Americans' wishes, according to survey results published Monday by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, illustrating a growing consensus among Americans that climate change is a problem that should be addressed.

The report found that up to 71 percent of Americans – 57 percent of Republicans and 87 percent of Democrats – say the US should continue participating in the global agreement that calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Compared to past results, the number of both Republicans and Democrats who view climate change as a serious problem has also risen.

"There is increasing support across the board to take some kind of action," Dina Smeltz, the lead author and a senior fellow at the Council, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

In recent years, various reports have revealed a growing or steady consensus among Americans across the aisle who believe that climate change is a problem they need to tackle. The Paris agreement, strongly pushed by President Obama, represents the latest global effort to address the problem. But a large partisan opinion gap still exists, the survey highlights, in views about how pressing a threat climate change is to the world – and how much we should spend trying to mitigate it.

"In the past we have always been struck by this large partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats about how much of a threat they see in climate change," Ms. Smeltz says. "It seems clear that it's more of a sense of priority. Democrats see climate change as a top priority; for Republicans, they see terrorism and nuclear proliferation as a higher priority now."

She emphasizes that the Council’s past surveys have found that Americans are generally amicable to international agreements with other countries as a solution to deal with climate change, with support declining only during economic recessions.

According to the survey, 62 percent of Democrats and 19 percent of Republicans say that climate change is a serious and pressing problem that should be resolved even if it “involves significant costs.” In contrast, 30 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of Republicans say that climate change should be addressed, but think its effects will be gradual, so they think gradual steps that are “low in cost” should be the way to go.

On the other end, up to 34 percent of Republicans and 7 percent of Democrats support the statement that climate change is not a confirmed problem and that the US shouldn’t “take any steps that would have economic costs.”

Even as concerns about climate change have risen in both parties since 2010, the report contends, the opinion gap about the level of threat has remained. One reason, the authors conclude, might be due to how more Republicans view climate change as a natural process, compared to Democrats and an overwhelming majority of climate scientists who have concluded that human activity is the trigger.

The Council’s finding is mirrored in a similar Yale Program on Climate Change Communication report released in June. That report also found that majority of Americans think global warming is happening, but more than half are only “somewhat worried” about the effects, with a partisan breakdown over how much priority the government should give toward addressing climate change.

“There are people who think global warming is happening but just don’t think it’s a priority,” Seth Rosenthal, a co-author of the report, tells the Monitor in a phone interview. “Some of our survey research indicates people see it as a relatively distant threat; [they think] it’s going to harm future generations or plants and animal species, and it’s not going to harm them personally.”

The one area of broad agreement among Americans, regardless of their party or belief about the level of threat, according to the Council’s report, lies in energy independence. Over half of the surveyed say investing in renewable energy is important for economic competitiveness, and tax incentives to encourage such investments are popular. 

Jon Krosnick, a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment and a professor at Stanford University, also came to the conclusion that a majority of Americans believe global warming is real through his surveys. There may be an underestimation of how much importance Americans place on the issue, due to common pollster errors, he says. 

“The most important and interesting discovery I’ve made is Americans don’t realize how green Americans are … and there is a good chance politicians in Washington are making the same mistake,” Professor Krosnick tells the Monitor in a phone interview. “Therefore one of the most potentially important steps forward for the government would be to get in better touch with reality.”

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