You’re not just imagining it. The national mood really is shifting on climate change.
For years, environmentalists have been wondering when it would finally sink in: When would the American people set aside their cultural and political differences, accept the scientific reality of the climate crisis, and collectively roll up their sleeves and do something about it? We’re not quite there yet. But there’s ample reason to believe that we’re moving toward a new, and necessary, consensus.
What can’t be disputed is that, with respect to climate action, the Overton window has moved. What is the Overton window, you ask? It’s a conceptual tool used by sociologists and political scientists to indicate which ideas are—and aren’t—considered acceptable in our public political discourse. When a particular policy solution to a vexing problem is thought to be beyond the realm of political tenability, that solution is said to exist outside the Overton window. But every now and then the window shifts, reflecting a significant change in the public mood. When that happens, what may have previously been characterized as unthinkable or radical becomes politically plausible. In recent years, for instance, the Overton window has shifted on issues ranging from marriage equality to the idea of a nominally socialist president.
And now we’re seeing yet another shift, this time around the issue of climate action. Why? Maybe it was the sight of hundreds of thousands of young people from all over the world in March, passionately demanding such action from their leaders. Maybe it’s the way that the Green New Deal has entered our public discourse and stayed there—sparking plenty of arguments, to be sure, but also reminding people that moving to a renewable energy economy has the potential to create millions of jobs even as it slashes greenhouse gas emissions. Or maybe it’s just the mounting evidence of climate change’s impact on our environment and our lives: the more intense storm surges and floods, the more protracted and devastating droughts, the eroding shorelines, the longer and more destructive wildfire seasons, and the ever-disappearing wildlife.
Whatever the catalyst, our national mood is showing signs of change, as is our national political conversation. Fewer and fewer policymakers are now comfortable with being branded as a climate denier, a label that many of them once wore with perverse pride. And as a newly published report from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication confirms, that’s because their constituents are increasingly coming together across party lines to acknowledge the climate crisis and demand solutions. The combined energies of Americans of all stripes are causing the Overton window to widen—making it not only easier to imagine and discuss policy remedies but harder for politicians to ignore the issue any longer.
The Yale study, rather prosaically titled “Politics and Global Warming, April 2019,” reflects the opinion of more than 1,000 registered voters who self-identify as Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Among its conclusions:
- Large majorities of registered voters from across the political spectrum support classifying and regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant (74 percent), using legal measures to enforce compliance with pollution regulations (82 percent), and requiring companies to pay a tax on their carbon emissions (72 percent).
- Similarly, sizable majorities support funding more research into renewable energy sources such as wind and solar (86 percent) and providing tax rebates to purchasers of energy-efficient vehicles and/or solar panels (84 percent).
- Somewhat smaller majorities also support a revenue-neutral carbon tax (67 percent) and the Clean Power Plan (69 percent). Interestingly, fully half of the Republicans surveyed expressed their support for this carbon-cutting plan, instituted by President Obama in 2015 and targeted for a rollback by President Trump last year.
- More than three-quarters of all registered voters (77 percent) want our schools to be teaching children about the causes and consequences of global warming and potential solutions to the problem.
These are encouraging numbers, especially when we look at the notable rise in certain percentages over the past few years. Since 2016, support for increased research into renewables has risen by two percentage points, and support for tax rebates to purchasers of energy-efficient vehicles and solar panels has risen by three points. Almost certainly related to these increases is the four-point rise in the percentage of Americans who say they’re worried about global warming: from 57 percent three years ago to 61 percent this year.
What do these upswings, however modest they may appear to be, mean? First, they tell us that two of the climate movement’s biggest and most important messages are finally breaking through and changing minds. One is that renewables and energy efficiency represent the future—not just the future of energy production but the future of job creation, clean air and water, and reduced emissions. The other message, of course, is that we have plenty of reason to be concerned about the speed and dedication with which we move toward replacing our fossil fuel–based energy economy with something that’s far cleaner.
If these percentages continue to rise at these rates, then pretty soon—I’d predict within the next two years—more than two-thirds of registered voters will be telling Yale’s pollsters that they’re worried about the climate crisis, and 90 percent will say that they support increasing funding for renewable energy research and infrastructure. Other percentages will rise accordingly. By that point, the Overton window will have shifted so much that policymakers in both parties will look ridiculously out of touch with public sentiment if they endorse anything other than immediate, substantive climate action.
Until then, environmentalists should feel encouraged by polls like this one. They show that in the ongoing battle for hearts and minds, our strategy—tell the truth, show the science, and never give up—is working.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
David Doniger, senior strategic director of the Climate & Clean Energy Program, has helped shape federal and global climate-related policies since he joined NRDC in 1978.
Her name is Naomi Seibt and her message to the world: Let’s not beat ourselves up about burning fossil fuels—everything’s gonna be fine!
Greta preached. Trump prattled. Meanwhile, the CEO of finance giant BlackRock acknowledges that “climate risk is investment risk.”
Members of the evangelical community traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet their representatives and voice their concerns about the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken the Endangered Species Act.
The agency’s first administrator built the EPA from scratch—and established the nonpartisan, antipolluter culture that the Trump administration has all but abandoned.
Thousands of companies are stepping up where the president has stepped down—to save the planet along with their profits.
From Chicago to Moscow, this artistic collaboration puts climate change on display—and world leaders on notice.
The president’s promise to renegotiate the international climate agreement was always a smogscreen, the oil industry has a red phone at Interior, and will Trump bring food trucks to Old Faithful?
But since the larger climate movement has done a poor job of engaging them, the community is mobilizing itself.
We don’t want to jinx it, but with the Youth Climate Strike it sort of looks like . . . yes. (Finally.)
To address the growing climate impacts on low-income people and communities of color, NRDC signed on to a historic platform that seeks to create a future that benefits all.
The stories that really reach people are the ones with stirring scenes, suspense, and relatable characters.
As far as future-building strategies go, Greta Thunberg’s passionate optimism beats Jonathan Franzen’s placid pessimism any day.
In protests around the globe, the next generation is sending a collective message to world leaders to act on climate change. Here, four teenage activists tell us their personal reasons for striking.
Indianan Jim Brainard has been making the post-partisan case for building sustainable, resilient cities for more than 20 years.
By increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we’re amplifying the planet’s natural greenhouse effect and turning up the dial on global warming.
Plus, the president warns states against protecting their own waterways, and the man Scott Pruitt would call for scientific advice is not a scientist.
On March 15, students around the world will walk out of their schools and speak as one, demanding climate action—and our attention.
New polls show that all Americans—Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike—want to close the book on our dirtiest fossil fuel.
What is your city doing about climate change? Ask your local leaders these five questions.
The U.N. report warns that dire impacts from climate change will arrive sooner than many expected. Here’s why we need to follow the report’s advice, and why every ton of emissions reductions can make a difference.
Pressured for years to “teach the controversy,” educators have banded together to expel anti-science forces from their classrooms.
Americans know which way the energy winds are blowing—and in the heartland, they’re blowing mightily.
The American people believe in climate change—and are committed to doing something about it.