Michiganders accept climate change but say others more likely to suffer

The last decade saw six of the 10 hottest years on record globally, with intense weather events like forest fires, intensifying rains and hurricanes becoming more common.  Lake Superior, for example, is continually flooding stretches of Lakeshore Boulevard, a popular drive that hugs the shoreline in Marquette. (Bridge file photo by Jim Malewitz)

“As we start to see really bad hurricanes and really severe wildfires and the cost to individual communities and to counties, and to states are skyrocketing, people are becoming more worried,” said Yale researcher Jennifer Marlon. (Photo courtesy of Yale University)

Most Michigan residents say climate change is happening and it will harm people in the United States — just not them personally, according to new polling data.

It’s a “stunning” gap, said Jennifer Marlon, a lead researcher on the project, by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

The Yale research group annually estimates public opinions about climate science for every county in the United States using a decade of data and statistical modeling. 

The group’s 2019 findings on public sentiment show broad concern among Michigan adults about climate change, if slightly less than the level of concern expressed by people nationally.

The majority of residents surveyed in every Michigan county (rural, urban, Democrat, and Republican alike) say they believe in and are worried about climate change.

Climate change is becoming “much more real to people on all sides of the political spectrum,” Marlon told Bridge Magazine.


The report estimated 65 percent of Michigan adults surveyed said they believe global warming is happening (compared to 67 percent nationally), while 17 percent said they do not believe it is happening. A slight majority, 53 percent, of Michiganders said they believe human activity is mostly responsible for global warming (32 percent said it is not mostly responsible). The report’s 2019 state-level data had a margin of error of +/- 7 percent

Asked whether global warming “will harm them personally,” just 39 percent of Michiganders polled said they would be harmed a great or moderate amount; 51 percent said they would be harmed little or not at all by global warming.  

The last decade saw six of the 10 hottest years on record globally, with intense weather events like forest fires and hurricanes becoming more common. 

So far this year, Michigan is 7 degrees warmer than average. As Bridge reported in July, research predicts a number of other environmental challenges for Michigan, from rising waters to algae blooms, pests that threaten farm crops and soil erosion. 

Where the Yale team still sees “a lot of division” is “what people understand as the causes of climate change and the science behind it,” Marlon said.

The optimism obstacle

Even though most residents are worried about climate change and believe it is going to harm people in the United States, majorities in every Michigan county ventured that it’s unlikely to harm them personally. They were much more likely to conclude that a changing climate will harm others in the United States, however. 

Bridge’s analysis of the Yale data shows, on average, a 16 percent gap in each county between the number of people who say climate change will harm them personally and who say it will harm people living elsewhere in the United States. Washtenaw County showed the largest belief gap in the state at 20 percent. 

This sense of comfort is not unique to residents in Michigan, a place that is repeatedly pointed to as a future refuge from the worst consequences of climate change. 

The Yale estimates show people across much of the United States believe they are far less likely to be impacted by a changing climate than fellow Americans.

People surveyed by researchers tend to consistently believe they are less likely than other people to experience negative life events. Known as the optimism bias, it is part of why people rate themselves less likely than others to experience a heart attack, get in a car accident or get divorced. On the flip side, people overestimate how likely good things are to happen in their life, like winning the lottery or living longer than average.

When it comes to predicting how likely they are to be impacted by negative environmental events, like a hurricane or pollution, people are known to rate other places as more susceptible to environmental calamity than their home — no matter where in the world they live.


This sunny default stance can dissuade some people from acting in response to climate science studies. However, local governments are taking an increasingly large role in Michigan in enacting climate plans.

“The policy implications of [this gap] are challenging because people feel like they are immune” to the negative consequences, said Marlon, of Yale. 

In her view, though, “you really only need a small segment of the population to get involved...It's not like we need everybody to be on the same page here. We just need a concerted small group, working towards these things.”

Note: Want to know what your neighbors or fellow voters think about climate change? Head to the Yale Climate Change Communication Opinion Factsheets generator to see the results on a variety of climate change questions for your county or congressional district.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Kevin Grand
Tue, 02/25/2020 - 8:27am

And when HASN'T the planet's climate changed?

Really, I'd love to read someone explain that.

Tue, 02/25/2020 - 1:50pm

The climate usually changes at a much slower pace; similar rates as we are experiencing have historically been associated with global mass extinction. But keep your head in the sand, surely the overwhelming majority of the global scientific community is wrong about this

Wed, 02/26/2020 - 10:01am

It's hilarious when reactionaries with no background in science think they have a slam dunk because they don't understand statistical methodology or data processing. I had a nice long answer written, but Bridge ate it; but then I remembered that you're a dishonest actor who won't actually read a meaningful refutation, so I'll just leave you with NASA's faq about why they implement data homogenization. Suffice to say that Ewert and his cohorts (in addition to not being neither honest, reputable, or even trained in the field of climate science) should absolutely know better than to misrepresent data post-processing.


Kevin Grand
Wed, 02/26/2020 - 12:21pm

That is NOT how science works, Bones. And, I would've thought that you knew better.

Manipulating data to confirm a hypothesis doesn't prove anything, othen than the fact that the original hypothesis itself is flawed.

This used to taught in science class at one point in both public school and college.

To see so-called "scientists" attempt to rationalize it as acceptable, is actually sad.

Tue, 02/25/2020 - 8:43am

The fixation on weather events or even cycles does not help and is a waste of time. The lake levels are supposedly high because of climate change. But everyone knows if the lake levels were low the same people would be crying climate change again! Pointing at every weather event or series of them as a reason for hysterics is a waste of time and shoots your credibility. Climate change can only be addressed by coming up with carbon free power sources that are legitimately better and cheaper. This won't be driven by politicians (see previous article!) and some lefty PC vision of punishing us for imperialism, consumerism and seeking economic advancement with the intention of redesigning the US into some imaginary Marxist paradise. Unfortunately too many CC activists can't help themselves.

Tue, 02/25/2020 - 8:50am

Lake Superior is only about 2 1/2 feet above average height. Perhaps the problem is that we allow building in the wrong places, and then expect the taxpayer to pay to fix any problem as a result of where the building has take place. No way should the road in the picture accompanying this article have been built in the location right next to the water. Government stupidity at its finest.

Wed, 02/26/2020 - 12:44pm

To reinforce your point, Arjay, our current lake levels are just below or just above historic highs, which have been measured for the past ~ 120 years. During that time, and previously, based on oral tradition, the water level has fluctuated significantly.

There is no way that *any* permanent structures should have been built by governments with eminent domain rights within 20-30 feet of the historic high water level. Great Lakes water levels have risen and fallen over an approximately 30 year cycle since we have been keeping records. We must plan on re-siting docks and boat ramps every 10-15 years , or duplicating high and low water level facilities along the Great Lakes shoreline. From now on, we need to build/ rebuild our roads and bridges to accommodate the known high water mark plus about 10% of the variation at any given site.

Tue, 02/25/2020 - 9:36am

Tell me how climate change will stop by pay more taxes to the government to combat climate change, and they can't stop robocalls or drugs from getting into the country.

Philip Mollica
Tue, 02/25/2020 - 9:51am

51% of Michiganders are in for a big fat surprise. Wait until climate-induced farming shortages hit, and subsequent food price increases. Ignorance is bliss, but will be short-lived.

Tue, 02/25/2020 - 10:04am

With a Michigan/Huron record low water level in 2013 and an expected record high in 2020, you'd expect that to be evidence enough that global warming is impacting us in a big way, but it isn't.

Deniers contend that it can't be both ways: global warming causing both record lows and highs. Deniers claim that it's just the natural cycle and we've only data for the last 100 years, not millennia, so what seems like a record low or high probably isn't. Deniers claim that lake levels will soon lower, since they always have after this much rise.

I hope deniers are correct on that last claim, but I fear not. Michigan/Huron rose over 5.5 ft. in just 6 years. The peak of the cycle is not in sight. How high will the next peak be? Another 5.5 ft.? How high or low will the lake levels need to be before deniers become believers?

Science isn't a...
Tue, 02/25/2020 - 10:09am

Just wait until the extreme weather patterns cause California-style fires in Pure Michigan turning our forests into desert, while the flooding increases. People will care when they no longer recognize our state and they face great hardships; think increased tornadoes, polar vortexes, etc. If you don't care, your children, grandchildren will.

Thu, 02/27/2020 - 12:51pm

Wait a second, "Science", we were being told that global warming or climate change or what ever the term is at the moment causes the excessive moisture we see and is overflowing our lakes. Now you're saying we need to be worried about fires and our forests turning to deserts? So which is it? How do you know? The need for real legitimate cost effective carbon free energy I believe is real, irrational and ignorant hysteria isn't productive to getting us there.

Tue, 02/25/2020 - 1:01pm

It's a hoax. Sure it's changing but it's been doing so long before anything man made. It's a racket. Democrats use it for control and money.

Tue, 02/25/2020 - 1:57pm

It pains me to see reactionary morons twist themselves into knots to avoid having to address the single greatest threat to human civilization since nuclear proliferation. By 2050, we're looking at a wave of climate refugees numbering (conservatively) in the hundreds of millions fleeing the tropics; we need to take steps *now* to make sure that doesn't happen.

Wed, 02/26/2020 - 8:47am

The only reason refugees will flee their historically tropical domains is to escape their property confiscating governments to get to the USA where lots of public assistance dollars will be available due to our money confiscating government pretending to protect us from environmental calamity. Can you imagine how hysterical folks would be if we were experiencing the 1930s dust bowl today? The planet is far more adaptable than the humans that inhabit it. When folks from northern states stop fleeing to southern states to escape our long and cold winters, maybe I'll view things differently.

Wed, 02/26/2020 - 10:20am

>The only reason refugees will flee their historically tropical domains is to escape their property confiscating governments to get to the USA where lots of public assistance dollars will be available due to our money confiscating government pretending to protect us from environmental calamity.

A stunning combination of ahistorical nonsense, good old fashioned racism, and a stunning lack of reading conprehension. Nearly all of those countries have had their democracies overthrown by the US on behalf of corporate interests. But the salient fact was that rising summer temperatures at the equator over the next 30 years are going to massively disrupt crop cycles in addition to flat out killing the poor, elderly, and infirm of heatstroke. Japan, a highly advanced nation well north of the equator, suffered a debilitating heatwave last year that killed hundreds; how do you suppose impoverished Central American national are going to be able to cope with that?

>Can you imagine how hysterical folks would be if we were experiencing the 1930s dust bowl today?

The Dust Bowl? A largely human caused ecologic catastrophe that massively disrupted economic and agricultural norms and caused a re-evaluation of resource management?

>The planet is far more adaptable than the humans that inhabit it.

An empty platitude, especially given that we're talking about the effect of climate change in human civilization, which I assume you care about.

>When folks from northern states stop fleeing to southern states to escape our long and cold winters, maybe I'll view things differently.

The ignorance of this comment is staggering, such that I can't tell if you're a troll, or a remarkably stupid racist

Wed, 02/26/2020 - 5:53pm

Oh, point-counterpoint. Thanks for the enlightenment. Surely you can concoct more fascist stereotypes than simply identifying me as a racist? Your insight is beyond description and your delusion that man can influence a system as massive and mysterious as the global climate is the height of academic arrogance.

Thu, 02/27/2020 - 12:57pm

Yes like the millions fleeing Venezuala right now. Oh wait, they're running away from some other Marxist buddy of your guy Bernie!

Alexander Beaton
Tue, 02/25/2020 - 2:00pm

You may not like it, and you may not like those who deliver the message, but there is an established correlation between greenhouse gas concentration and the increase in global average temperatures. In 1982 Exxon predicted the current CO2 concentration in our atmosphere, which is significantly higher than it has been in millennia past. They knew decades ago as they know now, that the recent rapid increase in CO2 is a byproduct of burning fossil fuels.

And do you know what the rest of the world will do if this country continues to dig our collective feet in? They will move on without us. We will eventually lose preferred trading status over this issue, and it will drastically affect our economy. We are currently being sold on a short-term gain by the climate deniers. In the long run the sacrifices are worth it, not only because of the sustainability of the planet, but because there will be money at stake. We should be leading this charge instead of being a bystander.

Wed, 02/26/2020 - 9:00am

As you all damn well know our plant life need CO2. In turn they give off Oxygen. So in turn if you are so f’n worried about the CO2 levels plant some damn trees.

Fri, 03/06/2020 - 12:02pm

Global warming will consume billions of tax dollars to pay for the the damage inflicted on cities and farms alike. Houses have to be moved, flood gates have to be built to keep water out of cities, warm temperatures will encourage the growth of mosquito borne disease, novel fungi will infect us, etc. The list is endless. Look what Miami has to do to lift buildings and highways. So whether you agree or not that CO2 created by humans is a cause, you are still going to have to pay for it. Our cities in America are small towns compared to cities in China, India and Korea. Human activity across the globe affects out lifestyles here. Say your local hospital is running out of masks and gloves now? Your cheap drugs from China are contaminated with glass or cancer causing chemicals? Because of our desire for everything to be cheap, cheap, cheap, we gave our economy away to an unfriendly country and now it is going to come back to cost us a LOT of money.