LOS ANGELES - Reeling from the worst fire season in California's history, 3 in 4 state voters say wildfires pose a greater threat today than ever before, yet they are divided sharply along party lines about what role climate change plays in the infernos, according to a new poll.
The widespread belief that California's wildfire threat is greater now than in years past was held by 74% of surveyed voters, and included majorities ofcoastal and inland voters, regardless of region, age, sex and political ideology, according to a poll performed by UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies.
"It's a belief you don't have to argue with people about, it's really out there," said Mark DiCamillo, a veteran pollster and institute director.
Deep fissures exist, however, and many of them are attributable to partisan politics, DiCamillo said.
About 83% of Democrats consider wildfires to be a "much more" serious threat today than in the past, while only 59% of Republicans share that same belief, the poll found. Among those with no party preference or another party designation, it was 72% and 70%, respectively.
Asked if climate change was a major, minor or nonexistent factor in contributing to a greater number of California wildfires, roughly two-thirds of those polled said they considered it a major factor. That view appeared to be dictated largely by political affiliation however: 90% of Democrats said it was a major factor compared to 19% of Republicans. About 70% of voters without a party preference said climate change was a major factor.
Of those polled, 46% of Republicans and 61% of those who described themselves as "very conservative" said climate change was not a factor in recent fires, even as scientists say climate change has exacerbated the fires due to increasing temperatures and drying of vegetation. Only 2% of Democrats, 1% of people who described themselves as "very liberal" and 9% of people without a party preference said climate change was not a factor.
While its heartening that a majority of Californians, including Republicans, see the threat of wildfires has changed with time, the denial of climate change among conservatives indicates there is still a ways to go, said Kristina Dahl, a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The fossil fuel industry denied climate change and its role in it for years and those doubts have been given a huge platform by President Trump and other GOP lawmakers in recent years, she said.
"Those seeds of doubt were planted very deliberately and a long time ago," Dahl said. "That's something that pervades the public's thinking on climate change and also provides convenient talking points to relevant authority figures who feel the same way."