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Climate

A New Poll Reveals How Americans Felt About the Wildfire Smoke

Americans heard a lot about smoke precautions, Data For Progress found. But the survey also suggests a troubling acceptance of our new reality.

People wearing facemasks and wildfire smoke.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

It’s been just over a week since smoke from Canadian wildfires swept over the East Coast, enveloping the region in a hazardous, multi-day haze. The crisis seemed to dissipate as quickly and confusingly as it arrived, even though it’s likely not even over.

At its climax, the event broke records. Wednesday, June 7, was by far the worst wildfire smoke day in U.S. history, in terms of the number of people that were exposed to toxic air.

But will it be remembered? In the long arc of climate-related disasters, will this one stick with us as a pivotal moment? Or will the continuing ebb and flow of smog rolling in from Canada this summer dilute the acuteness of the experience?

The progressive think tank Data For Progress conducted a poll of 1,236 likely voters from around the country last weekend about what happened in the Northeast. The results aren’t especially surprising, and since the smoke is likely to come back, and in the meantime has affected other parts of the U.S., it would probably be worth running the poll again in a week or two.

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  • But I do think the responses sketch a picture of how people are processing our new reality, where wildfire smoke is no longer solely the concern of the arid West, but a national public health threat.

    Personally, I was relieved to see that the vast majority of voters of all political stripes — 89% — believe exposure to smoky air threatens public health, despite what they may have heard from a crank on Fox News. Also, even though the response from public officials may have been slow and inadequate, the majority of those surveyed had seen recommendations on how to protect themselves by wearing a face mask, running an air purifier, or by limiting their time outdoors. That’s a hopeful data point: As these events become more common, people will at least be better prepared for them.

    The survey also investigated what voters believe caused the wildfires in Canada, asking them to rate the relationship between the fires and “climate change,” “poor land management,” “natural weather patterns,” and “fossil fuel corporations.” The results were predictably polarized on climate change, with 86% of Democrats, but only 33% of Republicans, blaming it at least somewhat, if not a great deal. However, most of the country seems to be in agreement that poor land management and weather patterns also played a role.

    “There is still a gulf across party lines regarding how much voters directly attribute climate change to extreme weather events,” said Danielle Deiseroth, the executive director of Data for Progress. “Climate change doesn't care whether you live in a Red state or Blue state, it’s a threat to the public health of our entire country and planet, and we need action.”

    To be clear, we don’t yet know the extent to which climate change played a role in the wildfires in Eastern Canada. Quebec was not in drought, though it had an unusually hot spring. “There is a clear link between climate change and the hotter conditions and fuel aridity that make ‘fire weather’ and wildfires more likely and more destructive,” climate scientist Zeke Hausfather wrote last week. “At the same time, any individual fire may be the result of a number of factors.”

    The most interesting part of the poll, to me, was a section that tried to assess the country’s emotional response to the event.

    Participants were asked about their feelings twice. First, they were prompted to report whether or not they felt frustrated, hopeless, scared, sad, confused, optimistic, pleased, or indifferent when thinking about the hazardous air quality on the East Coast. Then they were asked the same questions again after being shown an image of the Empire State Building obscured by a smoky, orange glow.

    The Empire State Building in New York City obscured by smoke against an orange skyThe image that participants were shown while taking the Data For Progress surveyDavid Dee Delgado/Getty Images

    The vast majority of voters responded that they were neither indifferent (89-91%) nor pleased (98%) nor optimistic (95-97%) before and after being shown the photo. But many were hesitant to agree to any of the other suggested sentiments. Less than half of those polled acknowledged they felt sad, even after seeing the apocalyptic photo. The regional breakdown is also interesting: Fewer respondents in the Northeast reported feeling sad than anywhere else in the country, although they were the most likely to feel scared. The emotion that got the strongest response before seeing the photo was frustration, afterwards it was fear.

    I found the results for sadness somewhat unsettling. The world as we’ve known it is dissolving in a cloud of smoke, yet we collectively struggle to mourn it. Some people might not understand or accept what is happening. But I fear that for others, the tepid reaction had more to do with the fact that we’ve all seen so many images like this by now.

    Acclimatized, desensitized, whatever word you want to use — it’s possible this is the world many of us have come to expect. And because a defining feature of wildfire smoke is that it will reliably drift away, unlike the devastating impacts of the fire itself, it’s possible to look at this anomalous, tragic event and see not an occasion for mourning but just another familiar symptom of decay.

    Or maybe people just have trouble admitting to being sad. On the bright side, the poll did find that 84% of voters didn’t feel hopeless, even after being shown the scary photo. Of course, we don’t know whether that’s because they are hopeful about tackling climate change. But I’d like to believe that’s the case, because there is so much work to do, and it’s important that people have faith that we can do it.

    Data for Progress conducted a survey of 1,236 likely voters nationally using web panel respondents from June 9 to 11, 2023. The sample was weighted to be representative of likely voters by age, gender, education, race, geography, and voting history. The survey was conducted in English. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

    Emily Pontecorvo profile image

    Emily Pontecorvo

    Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.

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