When I was in college in the ’70s, Earth Day was a day when only the most socially conscious people talked 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 facing humanity,” said Jeffrey Duchin, Seattle and King County Health Officer. “And I’ve been dealing with Covid for the last two years.”
Remember that 1991 ad that ran in newspapers nationwide, along with radio ads and targeted ads on talk radio?
It came from the Environmental Information Council, sponsored by coal companies and electricity companies that used coal. The group wanted to convince people that climate change is just a theory and not a scientific fact. It also claimed that the evidence that carbon dioxide was the main cause of climate change was “nonexistent”.
Today, the Pew Research Center notes, “Most Americans say climate change is affecting their local community, including 70% who live near the coast.”
And: “67% of Americans perceive an increase in extreme weather conditions, but advocates are divided on government efforts to counter it.”
Gallup polls are asking Americans whether our collective understanding of the seriousness of global warming in general is overstated, understated, or correct. The number of Americans who say it’s an exaggeration and the number who say it’s an understatement are almost equal. But go back a decade and notice how those numbers have changed.
Gallup has tracked American attitudes toward environmental issues for decades, and one trend is clear: when the economy falters, economic concerns take center stage and environmental concerns take a backseat.
We saw what happened this month when President Biden faced rising gas prices. He approved summer use of E-15 ethanol, which is associated with increased summer air pollution. The rule change will result in savings of 10 cents per gallon for parts of the country that have access to the higher ethanol fuel.
A CBS story begins like this:
If climate change were a disaster film, it would probably be accused of being too exaggerated: wildfires reduce entire cities to rubble, hurricanes inundate cities, droughts dry up lakes and fields, and raging oceans deface the maps of our coastlines draw again . And now many cities and countries are asking themselves, who should pay for all this?
“This is real; we’re on the front lines of climate change here in Charleston,” said John Tecklenburg, the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina. The city has been battered by an endless parade of flooding due to rising sea levels. Some desperate homeowners have tried to raise their homes 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 recover the costs of climate change.
The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication recently released interactive maps and graphs that allow you to take a closer look at public opinion about climate change at a very local level in each state. This is the big picture:
When the Yale project asks people what global warming means for them personally, it’s interesting that most Americans say it will affect people elsewhere, but don’t yet see how it will affect them.
Gallup recently asked Americans what the Biden administration should do to respond to climate change. Respondents said yes by a wide margin to incentives for installing solar and wind power and buying electric cars. The Americans told Gallup they support increasing fuel efficiency requirements for new vehicles and that the country should spend more federal dollars to install charging stations for electric vehicles.
A few recent climate-related stories from the past week:
- Military installations affected by climate change, Military Times
- New data shows climate change has made hurricanes stronger and wetter, The Weather Channel
- Wind power overtook coal and nuclear power for the first time in the US on March 29 at The Hill
- Increasing drought has western US searching for water, The Associated Press
- How technology is/can be tackling climate change, Recode/Vox
- Long after the pandemic subsides, climate change will disrupt supply chains, Yale Environment 360
- Climate change is and will be affecting commercial fishing, WHYY/Rutgers
- Clogged pipes, smelly yards: Climate change is destroying septic tanks, The Washington Post
- Biden plans to open more public land for drilling, The New York Times
- Fight brewing over California ballot measure to reduce single-use plastics, Los Angeles Times
Other interesting angles:
A 2016 study examined the link between weather and crime in Baltimore. This study found, “Maximum daytime temperature is the most important weather factor associated with violence and trauma in our study period and study location.” This study even suggests that hospitals keep temperature increases in mind when forecasting staffing needs. Another study said, “We find that the rate of attack increases by 1% for every degree increase in 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 costs Americans $800 billion a year, including premature deaths, medical costs, lost… Jobs and mental health impairments.
Some of these factors are more directly measurable than others, but even these are difficult to quantify. For example, last summer hundreds of Americans died from heat stroke, which caused cardiac arrest, brain damage, and other organ failure. More died by drowning trying to cool down. Rescue workers and hospital workers were few and far between between the heat emergency and the coronavirus cases.
These are the “cascading” impacts of climate change-related health problems, in what Duchin and other public health experts call the domino-like health and equity challenges that are emerging.
“Our healthcare system was already stressed by Covid-19, and then you have the added burden of a climate-related weather event, which puts additional strain on both our emergency services and our healthcare system,” he said. “We really need to pay more attention to building the resilience of our healthcare system to deal with these multiple threats.”
A new Harris poll found that 84% of teenagers believe unchecked climate change will trigger global political instability and make parts of the planet uninhabitable. The young people told the pollsters they believe companies and lawmakers are not doing enough.
We have come a long way since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. It was first proposed by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson in 1969, right around the time the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon won a battle to create the Environmental Protection Agency and then passed the Clean Air Act. The fight against pollution and garbage began, but over time journalists studied the effects of environmental toxins and shrinking green space.
A year after the first Earth Day, 25% of Americans believed it was important to protect the environment. Today, 43% of Americans are “very” concerned about climate change, and another 22% are “fairly” concerned about it.
This article originally appeared in Coverage of COVID-19, a daily Poynter briefing with story ideas on the coronavirus and other hot topics for journalists. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.