Most Americans See Local Effects of Climate Crisis and Say Government Needs to Respond, Research Shows
The salient reality of the climate crisis is undeniable to many Americans. We have seen record heat waves from Alaska to Mississippi, record flooding, beaches closed due to algal blooms, increased storm intensity and devastating wildfires in 2019. Now, most Americans say the climate crisis is bearing down on them, and the government needs to do more to stop it, according to a new survey from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in Washington, DC.
The poll found that 62 percent of Americans say the climate crisis is directly impacting their local communities, usually with increased flooding, unusually warm weather, changed ecosystems, droughts or wildfires, as Science News reported.
"What it looks like is happening is a larger portion of Americans are accepting that climate change is with us and poses a hazard," says Risa Palm, an urban geographer at Georgia State University in Atlanta not involved in the study, to Science News.
A majority of U.S. adults say they are taking at least some action in their daily lives to protect the environment, according to a statement from the Pew Research Center. The survey found that 80 percent of Americans said they were reducing food waste, 68 percent said they were reducing water use, and 41 percent said were eating less meat. About half of respondents said they were driving less or using carpools more, while 72 percent said they reduced how much single use plastic they used, as Science News reported.
The survey also found that two-thirds of adults say the government is doing too little to reduce the effects of the climate crisis, and it is doing too little to protect air and water quality.
While those findings are consistent with the Pew Center's 2018 survey, the major change was the number of moderate Republicans who are increasingly uneasy with the government's response to the climate crisis.
"Previous analysis showed that concern about climate change has gone up over the past several years (since 2013) among Democrats but not Republicans," said Cary Funk, director of science and society research at Pew, as Reuters reported.
The new survey, which polled more than 3,600 people in October, found that 65 percent of moderate Republicans said the federal government was not doing enough to reduce the effects of global warming. That's up from 53 percent in 2018, according to Pew, as Reuters reported.
There is a stark divide between Democrats and Republicans. Ninety percent of Democrats said the government is not doing enough to address the climate crisis, but only 39 percent of Republicans agreed. However, it turns out that Republican sentiment varied greatly by age and gender.
"Among younger Republicans – adults in the Millennial generation and Generation Z, ages 18 to 38 in 2019 – 52% think the government is doing too little on climate. By comparison, 41% among Generation X and 31% of Baby Boomer and older Americans say this. Republican women (46%) also are more inclined than GOP men (34%) to think the government's efforts on climate are insufficient," the Pew Center reported in its statement.
"People are beginning to hear and see that the impacts of climate change are here - now," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, to Reuters. He noted that the recent wildfires, hurricanes, and floods likely helped shift young Republican's opinions.
The people who are most likely to say that the climate crisis affected their local community live on the West Coast where residents recently faced droughts, wildfires and blackouts. On the West Coast, 72 percent of respondents said the climate crisis impacted their area. By contrast, the percentage of people in the Northeast, South and Midwest who said the same hovered around 60 percent, as Science News reported.
Another stark contrast between Republicans and Democrats is in their belief about the cause of the climate crisis. While 96 percent of Democrats said that human activity contributed greatly to the climate crisis, only 14 percent of conservative Republicans thought humans contribute a great deal to the crisis and another 39 percent said humans have "some" contribution, as Vox reported.
"The new measures speak directly to the current debate over the degree to which human actions are responsible for global climate change and how best to reduce the effects of climate change," said Funk in an email to Vox.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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