When I was in college in the ’70s, Earth Day was a day when only the most socially aware people would talk about “saving the environment” and skeptics called them tree-huggers and extremists. Compare that to this recent quote:
“Climate change is the single greatest health threat to humanity,” said Jeffrey Duchin, a health officer for Seattle and King County. “And I’ve been preoccupied with Covid over the last two years.”
Remember this 1991 ad that ran in newspapers nationwide along with radio ads and targeted ads on talk radio?
It came from the Information Council for the Environment, which was sponsored by coal companies and electric companies that used coal. The group aimed to convince people that climate change was merely a theory, not a scientific fact. It also claimed that proof that carbon dioxide was the primary cause of climate change was “nonexistent.”
Today, the Pew Research Center finds, “Most Americans say climate change affects their local community, including 70% living near coast.”
Gallup polling asks Americans whether our collective understanding of the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated, underestimated or correct. The number of Americans who say it is exaggerated and the number who say it is understated are almost equal. But go back a decade and notice how those numbers have changed.
Gallup has been tracking American attitudes toward environmental issues for decades and one trend is clear: When the economy begins to waver, economic matters take center stage and environmental concerns move to the back burner.
We saw what happened this month when President Biden was faced with rising gasoline prices. He approved the summertime use of E-15 ethanol, which is associated with increased summer air pollution. The rule change will produce a 10-cent per gallon savings for parts of the country that have access to the higher ethanol fuel.
If climate change were a disaster film, it would likely be accused of being too over-the-top: wildfires reducing entire towns to ashes, hurricanes swamping cities, droughts draining lakes and withering fields, and raging oceans redrawing the very maps of our coasts. And now, many cities and states are asking, who’s going to pay for all of this?
“This is real; we’re on the front line of climate change right here in Charleston,” said John Tecklenburg, the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina. The city’s been battered by an endless parade of floods due to sea level rise. Some desperate homeowners have resorted to raising their homes by several feet.
Charleston and more than two dozen cities, counties and states are suing ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips and other fossil fuel companies to cover the costs of climate change.
Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication recently published interactive maps and graphics that let you drill in on public opinion about climate change at a very local level in every state. This is the big picture:
When the Yale project asks people what global warming means to them personally, it is interesting that most Americans say it will affect people in other places but do not yet see how it will affect them.
Gallup recently asked Americans what the Biden administration should do to respond to climate change. By a wide margin, respondents said yes to incentives for installing solar and wind power and buying electric cars. Americans told Gallup they support hiking fuel efficiency requirements for new vehicles and that the country should spend more federal dollars to install electric vehicle charging stations.
A few recent climate-related stories from the past week:
- Military installations affected by climate change, Military Times
- New data shows climate change made hurricanes stronger and wetter, The Weather Channel
- Wind Power Overtook Coal, Nuclear for First Time in U.S. on March 29, The Hill
- Expanding Drought Leaves Western US Scrambling for Water, The Associated Press
- How tech is/can address climate change, Recode/Vox
- Long after the pandemic eases, climate change will disrupt supply chains, Yale Environment 360
- Climate change is and will affect commercial fishing, WHYY/Rutgers
- Backed-Up Pipes, Stinky Yards: Climate Change Is Wrecking Septic Tanks, The Washington Post
- Biden Plans to Open More Public Land to Drilling, The New York Times
- Fight Brewing Over Calif. Ballot Measure to Reduce Single-Use Plastics, Los Angeles Times
Other interesting angles:
One 2016 study examined the link between weather and crime in Baltimore. That study found, “Maximum daily temperature is the most important weather factor associated with violence and trauma in our study period and location.” That study even suggested that hospitals keep temperature increases in mind when they forecast staffing needs. Another study said, “We find that there is 1% increase in the assault rate for every degree increase in the maximum daily temperature.”
A study by the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Wisconsin Health Professional for Climate Action found that climate change and associated air pollution cost Americans $800 billion a year, counting premature deaths, medical costs, lost jobs and mental health harms.
Some of these factors are more directly measurable than others, but even those are hard to quantify. For instance, hundreds of Americans died last summer from heat stroke causing cardiac arrest, brain damage and other organ failure. Still more died from drowning as they attempted to cool off. Emergency workers and hospital staff were stretched thin between the heat emergency and coronavirus cases.
These are the “cascading” impacts of climate change-related health issues, as Duchin and other public health experts refer to as the domino-like health and equity challenges springing up.
“Our health care system was already stressed from Covid-19, and then you have the added burden of a climate-induced weather event that adds additional stress both to our emergency medical services and to our health care delivery system,” he said. “We really need to pay more attention to bolstering the resilience of our health care system to deal with these multiple threats.”
A new Harris poll finds 84% of teenagers believe climate change left unchecked will trigger global political instability and render parts of the planet uninhabitable. The young people told pollsters that they believe companies and legislators aren’t doing enough.
We have come a long way from the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. It was first proposed in 1969 by Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, right around the time that the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught on fire.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon won a fight to establish the Environmental Protection Agency and then passed the Clean Air Act. The fight began against pollution and litter but, over time, journalists investigated the effect of environmental toxins and shrinking green spaces.
One year after the first Earth Day, 25% of Americans believed it to be important to protect the environment. Today, 43% percent of Americans worry “a great deal” about climate change, and another 22% worry “a fair amount” about it.
This article originally appeared in Covering COVID-19, a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.