At the White House Correspondents Association Dinner last Saturday night, President Obama got angry. With the help of his anger translator, Luther (played by comedian Keegan-Michael Key), the president abandoned his usual reasonable tone to condemn those who deny climate change. “The science is clear,” he began. “Every serious scientist says we need to act. The Pentagon says it’s a national security risk.” As the president continued, it became clear that he no longer needed Luther to reveal his inner anger, and he drew laughs from the crowd after letting loose. “It is crazy! What about our kids? What kind of stupid, shortsighted, irresponsible… ”
While the president’s skit might have been the highlight of the night, do Americans really need this kind of angry reminder that climate change is a problem? Some seem to think we are living in a world where climate change is widely acknowledged as an irrefutable fact. Mary Robinson, the seventh president of Ireland and founder of the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice, has argued that the generation in power now is the first to fully know about climate change, and the last with the ability to prevent its projected effects. She and others are of the opinion that, at this point, all but a few outliers understand global warming, its causes, and its dire consequences.
New data from the Harvard Public Opinion Project tell a very different story. Only 55 percent of survey participants agreed with the statement, “Global warming is a proven fact and is mostly caused by emissions from cars and industrial facilities such as power plants.” Twenty percent held the belief that “Global warming is a proven fact, and is mostly caused by natural changes that have nothing to do with emissions from cars,” and the remaining 23 percent who answered the question believe that “Global warming is a theory that has not been proven yet.”
Even more surprising, these numbers are the same across the board for participants between 18 and 29 years old, with 51-56 percent agreeing that global warming is a fact and is caused by fuel emissions across age groups. In fact, the age group that least agreed with the first statement was that of 18 to 20-year-olds. The assumption that younger adults are more liberal when it comes to global warming does not hold up; if anything, they are even more skeptical.
Consequently, young Americans are often unsupportive of government measures to prevent climate change that might harm the economy. Less than a third of those surveyed agreed with the statement, “Government should do more to curb climate change, even at the expense of economic growth,” and only 12 percent strongly agreed with it. Again, the youngest survey respondents were more conservative than any other age group, with only 28 percent of 18 to 20-year-olds in agreement and eight percent in strong agreement with that statement. In contrast, other age groups varied between 30 percent and 34 percent in agreement and 11 percent to 14 percent in strong agreement. Not only are the newest voters less convinced of climate change as a reality; they are also less likely to support government funding of climate change solutions.
In light of this data, continued efforts by public figures to convince the public of the reality of climate change are not unwarranted. In fact, President Obama’s break in character could not have come at a better time. With experts saying that time is running out for policy changes to affect the environmental situation, voter support for measures that would curb climate change is needed now more than ever. Perhaps the president’s humorous approach will reach the country’s youngest voters and get them to worry about climate change, at least as much as their slightly older counterparts.