Climate change threatens the coast and NC should act, voters of both parties say

In the wake of Hurricane Florence, an overwhelming majority of North Carolinians — 76 percent — say that real-estate development should be restricted in low-lying areas that are prone to flooding, according to a new poll conducted by Elon University and released Thursday.

It’s one of the few issues on which Republicans and Democrats see eye-to-eye in Elon’s poll of 848 registered voters about Hurricane Florence. But the poll shows that many Republicans are also concerned about global warming, even if not to the same degree as Democrats.

Overall, 83 percent of people who responded think it’s either very likely or somewhat likely that climate change will negatively impact coastal communities in North Carolina within the next 50 years. The majority of people in both parties felt that way — 68 percent of Republicans and 94 percent of Democrats.

The differences in perceptions between Republicans and Democrats are also reflected in a separate poll of 734 registered voters conducted by Nexus Polling. That poll, released last week, is part of a research collaboration between the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

Both polls, released independently of each other, show that there can be considerable overlap of opinion on climate change if a question is not asked in absolute terms but as a matter of degree, which brings out the common concerns of centrist Democrats and centrist Republicans who hold more moderate views.

Experience in the storm

Elon political science professor Jason Husser, who directed the university’s poll, said what interested him most about the survey responses is whether the public has confidence in official sources of information. It’s a question of interest because official weather forecasts can be imprecise and are constantly revised as conditions change.

The poll found that 77 percent of respondents said that the government warnings about the hurricane that hit the Carolinas in September were “about right,” whereas 16.7 percent said they are overstated. Just 7.5 percent said they are “less likely” to believe weather reports, while most said the storm made no difference in their trust.

Those small percentages of skeptics could translate to thousands of individuals. “I think we can speculate it has to do with the late breaking shift in which the storm turned south towards Myrtle Beach,” Husser said of Florence’s last-minute course change. “This is something that that public safety officials will need to keep in mind in the future.”

In the Elon poll, 42.1 percent said they lost power, 16.9 percent experienced flooding at home or at work, and 14.5 percent evacuated their home.

Climate change views

In one striking alignment of political views, the Elon poll shows that 80 percent of Democrats and 72 percent of Republicans favor restricting development in flood-prone areas.

The poll didn’t suggest examples of how development could be restricted.

Democrats tend to believe that hurricanes are becoming more severe, and that scientific climate change data should be incorporated into local government planning and ordinances. The GOP-dominated N.C. legislature has passed a law that prohibits the use of global warming projections in local planning policy, but 47 percent of Republicans favor incorporating findings form climate change scientists into local government planning, compared to 76 percent of Democrats.

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And the polling shows that opinions on the issues are changing in a relatively short period of time. Elon conducted a similar poll in April 2017. Just 18 months ago, only 13 percent of Republicans said that climate change was “very likely” to have negative impacts on coastal communities, but in this month’s poll, that number had risen to 37 percent.

In another show of bipartisanship, the majority — 91 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of Republicans — approve of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s response to Hurricane Florence. “If voters were voting in 2020 just on the Hurricane Florence response, Cooper would be in good shape,” Husser said.

The Nexus Polling survey shows nearly identical results: Just over half of Republicans and Democrats said Cooper’s response to Hurricane Florence was “very good,” and a third from each party thought Cooper’s response was “good.”

In the Nexus Polling survey, Democrats by a wide majority say they believe that climate change was responsible for the flooding and intensity of Hurricane Florence, and that global warming is generally making hurricanes more severe. For example, 80 percent of Democrats said climate change had a large effect or some effect on the amount of rainfall from Hurricane Florence, while 39 percent of Republicans felt that way.

Democrats are more likely to say they experience global warming on a personal level: Nearly three-fourths of Democrats believe that climate change is having a lot of effect or some effect on their family, compared to just a third of Republicans who feel this way. No specific details were included on how global warming is affecting the daily lives of Democrats or Republicans.

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