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Climate change survey captures nation’s gaping partisan divide through a Southwest Florida lens

A new survey of attitudes about global warming in Southwest Florida found that most residents believe climate change is real, is happening now, and the impacts will be felt by future generations.

While the poll found 75% of residents surveyed believed climate change was a thing in 2018, that conviction has declined to 68% now.

The survey, which included questions on political affiliation, found many Republicans and some independents in the Southwest Florida region are less concerned about effects of a warming planet, and less supportive of possible solutions. They say they are more worried about the economy than the ecology.

The poll also found Democrats and other independents are largely concerned about climate change and want to find possible solutions. A vast majority are more concerned about acting on climate change than economic growth.

Republicans who believe climate change is happening are far more likely to say it’s due to natural causes, and only 35% believe individual efforts can reduce the pollution causing climate change. Democrats who believe climate change is happening are far more likely to say it’s due to manmade causes. 89% believe individual efforts can reduce the pollution causing climate change.

The differences, it seems, are not based in science but in sociology.

“There is such a partisan divide on climate change that it is hard to tackle it at this time, especially when people are concerned about the economy, gas prices, and employment,” said Ana Puszkin-Chevlin, regional director of Growing Climate Solutions, who commissioned the climate change survey. “We need to have a more honest conversation on how to wrap your head around climate change even when other issues are on your mind. We need to have continuity on this issue.”

Growing Climate Solutions is a grassroots coalition of environmental stalwarts in Southwest Florida working to inform and prepare their community for what they see as inevitable realities of climate change.

They commissioned the survey to see not only how public perception of climate change may have evolved since a similar survey in 2018, but also for guidance on many related issues such as use of alternative fuels or who can best solve the problems or engage the community.

The coalition hopes the survey will inform how it can best focus its considerable collective knowledge of the potential effects of climate change and to create a community that is more informed, better prepared, and best able to adapt and recover from future environmental challenges.

Their survey, which involved 400 adults in five Southwest Florida counties, was designed to gauge numerous aspects of climate change, including the level of beliefs in a warming planet, concern about coming changes, community readiness for rising seas and warming temperatures, the use of alternative energies to slow climate change, and trustworthy sources of information about global warming. The survey also included questions on climate change as seen through a partisan lens.

But the politics of climate change ended up dominating the answers -- and the issue itself.

The last four years has seen waves of sociopolitical events nationwide, including pandemic-caused blowback over masks, vaccines, lockdowns, and travel restrictions while Americans dealt with a controversial president, a home-grown attack on the U.S. Capital, school shootings, and soaring food and gas prices -- all topics that simultaneously stoked the country’s growing partisan divide and became parts of it.

California-based pollsters Lake Research Partners, who performed the survey, said this year's poll, when compared to a similar one four years ago, revealed that partisan polarization in Southwest Florida is arguably more pervasive than the widening national gap between Republican, Democrats, and in some cases, independents.

Lake Research felt the partisan issues, taken as a whole, present “significant challenges” for groups like Growing Climate Solutions in developing a strategy to deal with undeniable warming temperatures and more extreme weather events that are evident around the world.

“People who identify as Republicans are increasingly harder to engage with and persuade on issues of climate,” Lake Research wrote. “Meanwhile, people who identify as Democrats continue to express significant concerns around climate change and support for solutions.”

In the survey, wide-ranging support was found for policies that would provide financial incentives for investments in clean energy at both the corporate and household level. The poll found 65% of respondents say companies should earn corporate tax credits if they expand clean energy usage, 61% support personal tax credits for buyers of electric or hybrid vehicles, and 57% supporting passing laws requiring more resource-efficient buildings and cars.

However, there was widespread support among Southwest Floridians on several issues some could argue are more about a sound ecosystem now than an impending planet-wide environmental meltdown.

More than 85% of those surveyed favor modernizing America’s electric grid, 74% want to see polluters charged for the pollution they spew, dump or spill, and 70% want some sort of tax break or rebate to spur a switch to solar energy,

The cost of energy, including the price of a gallon of gas, is the most pervasive climate impact personally affecting three in four survey-takers, more than extreme weather, record heat waves, or flooding.

A strong majority of the region’s residents say government at all levels need to step it up environmentally: protect the natural resources that help lessen damage from floods like mangroves and wetlands, enact rules and laws to reduce pollution running into bays and estuaries, and pass laws requiring energy-efficient buildings and vehicles.

The pollsters found substantial changes in partisan identity in Southwest Florida in just the last four years. Men under 50 years old are more Republican now than in 2018, up to 50% from 36%. Democratic ranks in the same age category fell from 40% four years to half that now.

The shift was even more pronounced in the 30-and-under group, where men and women dropped from 63% Democratic in 2018 to 15% today.

Those who identify as independent, or “something else,” increased greatly from 4 percent to 33 percent during the last four years.

"All kinds of issues will come and go, but talking climate change has to be a steady, ongoing directive. We can’t be pushing this aside," said Puszkin-Chevlin, the regional director of the climate solutions group. “And we have to start now. We have to pursue this approach, and actually get more aggressive.”

Lake Research surveyed 400 adults in Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, and Lee counties from April 14-18., 2022. The pool of people involved was weighted slightly by gender, region, then region-by-gender, age, race, and political affiliation. Telephone numbers for the sample were generated from a list of adults in the greater Fort Myers area, and those taking part in the poll were sent a link via text, which led to a website where the survey was taken. The margin of error for the sample is 4.9%.

The survey firm noted the timing of the poll may distort the methodology behind the survey: This year’s polling was completed in the spring while the 2018 survey used in comparison was done in the fall.

Growing Climate Solutions is a partnership between the Community Foundation of Collier County, the Collaboratory, Florida Gulf Coast University, and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, which receives additional support from the Kapnick Family Foundation.

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

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