Survey Says: Americans Care About Climate Change But Don't Want to Pay

Category Science

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A survey by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago in anticipation of Earth Day found that Americans believe climate change is real, but they're mostly not willing to spend money or go out of their way to help fix it because of economic considerations.

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Headlines about climate change have filled newsfeeds over the last few years, ranging from catastrophic (natural disasters, endangered species, dire predictions for the future) to a bit more optimistic (electrification, the transition to renewable energy, climate tech advances). The content we see and read plays a key role in shaping our opinions about climate change, but it remains a contentious topic.

Of the 5,408 adult survey respondents, 40% reported beliefs that climate change was caused by human activities.

A survey carried out by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) and The Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research aimed to find out how Americans really feel about climate change. The results were released over the last couple weeks in anticipation of Earth Day on April 22. In addition to general questions about climate change, the survey asked people about their views on energy policy and electric vehicles.

Of the people surveyed, 60% stated they are already taking some form of action to reduce energy consumption.

5,408 adults completed the survey between January 31 and February 15 of this year. There were respondents from all 50 US states, and they varied in age, race, gender, and education level.

In a nutshell, here’s what the survey found: Americans believe climate change is happening, but they’re not terribly worried about it, and are mostly not willing to spend money or go out of their way to help fix it.

The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago carried out a survey in 2021 and repeated it in 2023, with results showing a 10% decrease in willingness to pay for climate change efforts.

--- Believers, Sort Of --- .

74 percent of the survey respondents said they believe climate change is real. However, less than half—49 percent—believe it’s being caused by human activities (as opposed to natural changes in the environment). That 49 percent is down from 60 percent the last time this survey was carried out, in 2018. The change in viewpoint was uniform across education levels, from college graduates to those who stopped studying after high school. However, more people in the 18 to 29 age group changed their view than did those aged 60 or older.

The survey respondents were from all 50 US States, varying in age, race, gender, and education level.

In terms of actually taking action, more than half of respondents said they’re already trying to reduce their energy consumption (though this is likely as much of an effort to keep energy bills down as it is to help the environment). Some ways people are doing so is by using energy-efficient appliances (68 percent), turning off unnecessary lights (89 percent), using less paper and plastic (58 percent), eating less meat (37 percent), and using less heat and air conditioning (60 percent). These are relatively easy, low-cost actions that most anyone can take.

Of the people surveyed, 38% reported that they would be willing to pay a $1 carbon fee a month, compared to 21% reported willing to pay up to $100 monthly.

Fewer people are opting in to pricier climate-friendly actions, like putting solar panels on their home (11 percent), buying an electric or hybrid vehicle (12 percent), or getting electricity through a supplier that uses renewable sources (25 percent).

--- Hard to Cough Up the Cash --- .

It seems that much of Americans’ willingness to help combat climate change comes down to economics. Almost two-thirds of those surveyed said they weren’t willing to pay any amount of money to combat climate change—not even a $1 carbon fee a month. 38 percent would pay $1 a month, and 21 percent would pay $100 a month.

The City of Chicago is the largest city in the US to commit to 100% clean renewable energy by 2035.

How much people are willing to pay is likely more a function of their disposable income than of their concern over the environment. However, peoples’ willingness to shell out any amount of money, whether $1 or $100, decreased about 10 percent between 2021 and the present. This is likely because of the financial squeeze put on many by the pandemic and by the dire economic conditions that resulted.

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