WASHINGTON — Most Americans are at least somewhat confident that the world will step up in its fight against global warming — but there are limits to their optimism.
That’s according to a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research that also shows most think their own actions can make a difference.
About 7 in 10 Americans think it is at least moderately likely the world will take action in the next decade to reduce emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other gases, but only about 3 in 10 think that’s very likely to happen, according to the August poll.
Two-thirds of those polled said they think pollution reduction would have at least some impact in preventing future warming, but only about a quarter think it would do a lot to keep climate change at bay. About 3 in 10 Americans overall think even if emissions are cut back significantly it will do little or nothing to stop climate change.
“I worry for my children and my grandchildren and for the future and what they have in store for them,” said Vickie Jackson, of Aydlett, North Carolina. “I don’t think it’s going to get any better, unfortunately. It would take everybody to really pitch in and really care.”
Michael Mann, a prominent Pennsylvania State University climate scientist who has been labeled an alarmist by people who reject mainstream climate science, sees it a bit differently.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that we WILL take the actions necessary to avert catastrophic warming,” Mann said in an email. “However, these poll results also show that one of the greatest threats to action now isn’t outright denial. ... It’s hopelessness and despair and a growing sense in some communities that we have no agency in addressing this challenge.”
Democrats and younger people show a bit more optimism than Republicans and older Americans.
Eight in 10 Democrats say reducing carbon pollution in the next decade would help prevent additional global warming. About half of Republicans say emission cuts would have little or no impact.
About three-quarters of those under 45 say pollution cuts could prevent future warming, compared with about 6 in 10 of those 45 and older.
Ann Florence, 70, of Jonesborough, Tennessee, said she’s not optimistic the government — especially the Trump administration — will tackle climate change, but she has more hope when it comes to everyday people.
“It’s got to start from the bottom up,” she said. “If I take care of my carbon footprint, I’m helping someone in future generations.”
Scientists say individual actions do matter, especially if those actions are combined with changes across the globe.
When it comes to climate change, most Americans have big worries — about air quality, plant and animal life, drinking water supply, human health and rising sea levels — but what they say they are most concerned about is future generations.
While 44% of Americans say they’re very or extremely concerned about climate change’s effects on them personally, two-thirds say they are very or extremely concerned about future generations.
Chris Dennis, a 50-year-old nurse from Greenville, South Carolina, said he worries about his children, but he also thinks their generation will do more to solve the problem than his.
Jonathan Overpeck, dean of environment at the University of Michigan, said the next generation is key.
“We have a stark choice — leave them a world being destroyed by fossil fuels, or a world that is more sustainable, just, and powered by clean energy,” Overpeck said. “The world’s youth understand this and are making sure we all understand it. Their activism is making a real difference.”
Brett Kelso, a 33-year-old Libertarian-leaning independent who lives in Lincoln City, Oregon, knows a rising Pacific Ocean may destroy part of his town. But he’s not too worried about the long-term climate picture.
“Human beings, as a species, have been very adaptable creatures,” said Kelso, who is too busy raising a 1-year-old and 5-year-old while also working as a personal trainer to agonize over long-term problems.
NASA climate scientist Kate Marvel said it’s hard to predict the future, but “we can all shape the future we want.”
She added: “We’re not passive and we’re not helpless. I think we can be optimistic, but we have to earn that optimism.”
The AP-NORC poll of 1,058 adults was conducted Aug. 15-18 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.2 percentage points. Respondents were first selected randomly using address-based sampling methods and later were interviewed online or by phone.