This poll explains why climate change makes us feel so helpless

Americans are increasingly recognizing that climate change is real and will affect them — while also feeling increasingly helpless to do anything about it.

Protesters from Just Stop Oil climate protest group glue their hands to the frame of a copy of Leona...
James Manning - PA Images/PA Images/Getty Images

Americans are having two simultaneous awakenings on the issue of climate change. On one hand, they are increasingly recognizing that climate change is real and is the result of human activity and deserves to be taken seriously. On the other hand, they’re also coming to the deeply troubling reality that there isn’t very much that we, as individuals, can do to directly lessen the impact of the climate crisis.

These revelations about where the American public stands on climate change come via a new poll conducted by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. More than anything, they help shed light on one of the toughest challenges in climate policy: We aren’t getting out of this mess with individual action, no matter how much we compost our kitchen scraps or ditch single-use plastics.

That plays out pretty clearly in the shifting opinions that Americans express in the poll, which AP has conducted every year since 2015. Two-thirds of all Americans now believe that climate change is mostly or entirely the result of human activity, the highest level that has been reached in the history of the poll.

At the same time, there’s been a dramatic shift in recognition that we aren’t fixing this alone: Just half of those polled said they believe that their personal actions have an impact on climate change. That is a significant drop off from when the question was asked in 2019; just three years ago, 66% said they believed their individual actions could affect climate change. Related: The three biggest contributors to climate change, in the opinion of the American people, were the U.S. government, corporations and industry, and other industrialized nations.

Before you assume that Americans are going full blackpilled on the climate crisis, don’t worry: People are still trying to make changes to their everyday life. Seventy percent of those polled said these actions are necessary, and a majority of respondents said they take individual action like buying used products instead of new, turning off lights that aren’t in use, reducing the amount they drive, cutting back on meat consumption, and switching to energy-efficient appliances.

Most people are still trying to make changes to their daily lives, and they are doing so because they think it matters and is the right thing to do. They just are no longer under the illusion that those actions alone are going to save us. The next step for those who are concerned about climate change — and that’s most of us, to be clear — is to push the people in power to actually do something. So far, fewer than 1 in 5 Americans have volunteered with or given money to environmental causes, and just 14% have contacted their elected officials to encourage them to address the climate crisis. That’s the collective action that we individuals can take to have a chance to actually fix this mess.