A new survey of Californians reveals partisanship’s power to shape their readings of reality. This July, the Public Policy Institute of California released Californians and the Environment, its statewide survey examining how views of the changing climate vary by region, race and party.
There are several ways to analyze the report, but one takeaway is clear: When it comes to climate change, Republicans aren’t perceiving the same reality as Democrats and independents.
Asked whether they have personally been affected by an extreme weather event where they live in the past two years, “about half of independents and Democrats” said yes, compared to “about one in three Republicans,” per PPIC’s study. Asked whether “climate change has affected their local community a great deal,” only 7% of Republicans said yes. Conversely, more than 4 times as many Democrats and more than 3 times as many independents said so.
To be sure, Republicans and Democrats occupy different regions of this very large, geographically diverse state, so it shouldn’t be surprising that their responses to PPIC’s survey slightly diverge. What is weird, however, is that far from being less affected, climate change has arguably wreaked the most havoc on the most conservative parts of the state.
Of the 10 largest wildfires last year, seven were in counties that voted for Donald Trump in 2020, including Placer, Mariposa, Siskiyou and Modoc Counties. That wasn’t an anomaly: Of the ten largest conflagrations in 2021, eight strictly struck counties that voted for Trump in 2020, including Plumas, Trinity and Siskiyou Counties.
Beyond fires, let’s talk about drought. Sure, we had a wet winter that fortunately relieved some bone-dry soil, but the most conservative parts of the state have been disproportionately desiccated in recent years. Of the 43% of wells currently below historic levels, the vast majority lie north to south along California’s conservative Central Valley.
Then there’s increasingly catastrophic flooding. No part of the state has been spared. In fact, literally “every county has been declared a flood disaster area multiple times,” per an earlier PPIC report, according to which the Central Valley is particularly susceptible to overflowing rivers. This past winter, when a succession of atmospheric rivers ransacked much of the state, they didn’t avoid conservative counties. Far from it. Trump-loving El Dorado, Mariposa and Tulare Counties all had storm-induced fatalities.
Of 18 counties at elevated risk of catastrophic flooding — specifically those sitting in California’s Levee Flood Protection Zone — eight voted for Trump. That’s not a majority, but that’s no reason to feel immune from risk.
So why do California Republicans minimize the effects of, if not the existence of, climate change? They are what they eat.
Democrats and Republicans live in distinct information bubbles, but what sets Republicans apart is they overwhelmingly get their news from one source: Fox News, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center report. Fox, which is not known for getting reality right (after all, they had to shell out $787 million in April for lying to their viewers about election fraud), has been a vector for climate denial.
“Of Fox’s 247 segments that involved considerable discussion (of global warming in the first half of 2019), … 86% were dismissive of the climate crisis, cast warming and its consequences in doubt or employed fear-mongering when discussing climate solutions,” per Public Citizen’s report that year.
“In all news audiences except that of Fox News, large majorities think global warming is happening and human-caused,” according to a 2020 Yale University-led study.
As long as California conservatives keep imbibing Fox, don’t expect increasingly dangerous wildfires, droughts or floods to change their minds about climate change.
Republicans don’t see what they’re told not to believe.
Max Taves is a concerned Californian, a former columnist at The Wall Street Journal and CBS’ CNET and an award-winning former reporter at LA Weekly and Law.com.