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A Growing Consensus: Americans Feel the Urgency of Threats to Climate and Water

October 28, 2020
Environment Program Director Moira Mcdonald digs into results of our new poll on climate and water

When people talk about climate change, it’s often in the context of a hot summer day or a frigid winter night.

But we know the impacts of a changing climate are much more far-reaching and inextricably linked to water. We see this in the steady increase in destructive flooding in the Midwest, the mega-drought in the West and rising sea levels threatening the Gulf Coast.

Deborah Beck is a pollster and researcher who helped us gain a better understanding of Americans’ thinking on climate change in their everyday lives. I spoke with Debbie about Americans’ concerns about the future of our environment and the connections between water and our changing climate.

What did you find most surprising from the poll findings?

First, I was surprised that despite a very crowded national issue agenda, Americans want to keep moving forward on the environment. Addressing climate change can’t wait. A majority of Americans think the condition of the environment is going to be worse for the next generation, but people also fear damage from natural disasters. The top two problems that people think will get worse in the next 20 years center on the environment. Fifty-seven percent of people think damage from natural disasters will increase, and 51% say they think the environment in the places where they live will be worse in 20 years. That’s very telling at a time when we are in the middle of a recession and global health crisis. People expect jobs and health care to be about the same or better, but they don’t have that same optimism about the environment.

Several states in the upper Mississippi River basin suffered record flooding in the spring of 2019.

We live at a time when America feels very divided, but this poll showed more of a consensus than I expected. Are Americans really that far apart on this issue?

This is a time of deep partisan division, but it’s a mistake to think Americans disagree on everything. Most people are actually on the same page when it comes to climate change – they understand its urgency and what’s at stake if we do nothing. The poll found almost universal agreement among Americans that the nation needs to take immediate action on protecting water and addressing climate change, regardless of political affiliation. By a wide margin − 73% to 12% − Americans think humans can take action to reduce the impacts of climate change. Democrats are more likely to hold this point of view than Republicans, but majorities across both parties feel there’s something we can do to change course. When asked about the U.S. specifically, again 72% reported that the U.S. needs to do more to address climate change.

The Morelos Dam straddles the Colorado River at the U.S.-Mexico border.

When we look at water issues, we see connections to climate change everywhere. Whether it’s flooding, drought, or drinking water, there is a deep connection between healthy, available water and the changing climate. Do Americans understand these connections?

A full 84% of Americans agree that protecting the health of our water is essential to address climate change, but at the same time, most Americans don’t think access to clean, safe, and reliable water will be worse in 20 years. The environmental community has done an excellent job educating Americans on big, easy to spot, environmental dangers, such as those to large mammals or wildfires burning down thousands of acres. Two-thirds of Americans think the loss of wildlife habitats, coastal land loss and wildfires will be worse in 20 years, but only about one-third think that the water we drink or the food we eat will be worse. It’s harder for people to wrap our heads around problems that seem less concrete or immediate. For most Americans, water is infinite, and the quality of drinking water is very high, so it is hard to understand that the water cycle could be endangered in the near future. People might not yet understand that water plays a vital role in all of these environmental issues, but also is critical to our ability to produce enough food.

What do you find hopeful in this new poll?

Despite a record-breaking year for environmental strain, Americans see multiple ways to make things better. Almost nine in 10 Americans (88%) think companies have an obligation to take more action on environmental issues and 81% agree that we need a national approach, since some areas have catastrophic floods and others have horrible droughts. Americans recognize the fundamental importance of fresh air and clean water and are eager to take action to safeguard the environment for the future. Climate change, the environment and water aren’t just something Americans see on the news. These are deeply personal issues that have immediate and consequential impacts on their everyday lives.

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