A majority of Americans want to see oil and gas companies held to account for lying about the climate crisis and contributing to global heating, according to a new YouGov poll commissioned by the Guardian, Vice News, and Covering Climate Now.
Released today, the poll reveals that the US remains sharply divided over the causes of the deepening environmental emergency following the fossil fuel industry’s long campaign to downplay and deny climate science. That division falls largely along political lines, with Democrats and Republicans at odds over the source of climate disinformation.
The poll surveyed 1,000 American adults and found that 70% said global warming was happening. More than 60% said oil and gas companies were “completely or mostly responsible”.
But while Democrats overwhelmingly (89%) accept the scientific basis of the climate emergency, opinion is split among Republicans. Just 42% of Republicans agreed that global warming is a reality while 36% denied it. The remainder said they didn’t know.
The findings offer insight into the growing public pressure on the oil and gas industry as it faces dozens of lawsuits by states and municipalities. The plaintiffs demand that companies pay for the steep financial costs associated with the environmental devastation caused by burning fossil fuels.
A majority of Americans support the central aims of the lawsuits after being told that fossil fuel companies knew about their products’ impact on climate change. A little more than half wanted oil and gas companies to pay for damage caused by extreme weather events driven by the climate crisis, and 60% said the industry should pay to improve infrastructure to withstand the fires and floods caused by global heating.
Yet with Democrats and Republicans at odds on many climate issues, the poll also reveals the challenges litigants face in attempting to hold the fossil fuel industry to account, particularly in more conservative parts of the country.
Agreement on some aspects of the climate crisis cuts across political lines.
Americans broadly agree that all industries should be held accountable for their misdeeds. Eighty percent said manufacturers should warn consumers of harmful products and 69% said they should stop selling them.
But the numbers drop when it comes to products that are harmful to the environment, with only 60% saying that companies should stop selling them. This may reflect the central economic role played by oil in fuelling industry and transport, and the industry’s repeated warnings that there is no viable short-term alternative to petroleum.
The division also reflects Americans’ perceptions of oil companies. The poll showed that Exxon, the US’s largest petroleum firm, and Shell have high positive ratings among Republicans but high negatives among Democrats.
Still, nearly two-thirds of Republicans said oil and gas firms bore some degree of responsibility for the changing climate even though fewer of them acknowledged the existence of global heating. Twenty-eight percent of Republicans said the industry bore the greatest weight of responsibility while 35% said it was somewhat responsible.
A little more than 80% of Democrats said oil and gas companies were completely or mostly responsible for causing climate change. The young and people of colour leaned more heavily than the nation as a whole toward blaming the industry.
But political division emerged again when people were asked about the specifics of the fossil fuel industry’s misdeeds.
Democrats said oil and gas companies lied about the existence of climate change, and their part in creating it, at more than three times the rate of Republicans. Just under half of Republicans said oil and gas companies had done nothing wrong.
About 45% of Americans said the companies lied about contributing to climate change. A slightly smaller percentage said the industry had deceived the public about the existence of climate change and ignored their own scientists’ findings.
One of the starkest divisions was over scientific opinion on the climate crisis.
While 68% of Democrats said that most scientists think global warming is human-caused, just 22% of Republicans agreed. Half of Republicans said there is “a lot of disagreement” on the issue among scientists, a position held by less than 15% of Democrats.
In fact, a recent survey of scientists showed that 99.9% agree that the climate emergency is the result of humans’ actions.
Scepticism and denial about climate science are higher in the US than in many other countries. Americans deny the link between humans and global heating at three times the rate of the British and Japanese.
That is in part the result of decades of denial and cover-up by the oil industry, including the suppression of the evidence from its own scientists about the damage being done by burning fossil fuels.
The divisions also reflect fault lines on other issues, such as Covid vaccinations, with substantially fewer Republicans than Democrats being inoculated.
Experience of the climate crisis varied. Nearly half said it was harming their local community in varied ways from lower air quality to increased cost of living, with a higher proportion of women and Black Americans seeing its effects.
This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of news outlets strengthening coverage of the climate story