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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Public Attitudes on Global Warming and Their Political Ramifications

Summary.  A survey of Americans in spring 2011 shows that almost 40% are grouped as Alarmed or Concerned about global warming. Many of them understand that greenhouse gases arising from burning fossil fuels are responsible for global warming.  10% of respondents are Dismissive of global warming, so that they feel that human activity is not responsible for it.  Those surveyed understand that many remedial actions can be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The personal attitudes reflected in the survey results are mirrored in the way people identify with the political parties active in the U. S.

Introduction.  In the United States, political action to establish a framework addressing global warming under law has so far not been possible.  In spite of persistent efforts by environmental groups supporting an environmental policy law, other interests have opposed this effort, seeking to weaken or defeat proposed legislation. 

In such a polarized political environment, it is important to understand the opinions of the public on this issue.  This post presents the results of a survey of Americans on the topic of global warming.  A. Leiserowitz and his collaborators at Yale and George Mason Universities have been conducting public opinion surveys on questions of global warming and energy policy for several years.  Their previous survey was discussed in a post on this site in March 2011.  Selected results of their latest surveys, released within the past month, are summarized here.

Six Classes of Response to Global Warming Among Americans.  Leiserowitz and coworkers classified Americans into six groups in 2008, based on their attitudes concerning global warming and a need, if any was perceived, to address this issue.  They term these groups the “Six Americas”.

Alarmed Americans fully accept that global warming is real and carries serious consequences.  They already take measures to address it.
Concerned people likewise are convinced of the reality of global warming and its significance, but have not personally engaged in combating it.
Cautious members of the nation, while understanding that global warming may be a problem, are not convinced it is occurring, and do not feel a need to engage the issue.
Disengaged Americans do not give serious thought to global warming and indicate a lack of knowledge about the issue. 
Doubtful people are divided among those who believe it is occurring, those who feel it is not, and others who do not have an opinion.  Many believe global warming, if in fact it is occurring, arises from natural rather than man-made causes.  They also believe its effects are not a hazard to humanity.
Dismissive Americans feel that global warming is not happening, and that the issue does not raise a threat to humanity or life on earth.  They strongly feel no action to combat global warming is needed.

A Survey of Public Opinion on Climate Change.  Leiserowitz and coworkers (see Note 1 below) conducted a detailed survey of 981 American adults in the spring of 2011. 

Using the groups above that they already characterized, Leiserowitz and coworkers classify Americans in six classes of belief on global warming as shown in the graphic below.  39% are grouped as Alarmed or Concerned.  50% are

classed as Cautious, Disengaged or Doubtful, indicating an absence of a strong feeling about global warming and humanity’s role in its origins.  10% are Dismissive. (It is presumed that rounding errors lead to the total being less than 100%.)

The overall level of concern and feeling that action is needed among Americans follows their classification among the six groups; this has not changed significantly over three years (see the graphic below).

Certainty that Global Warming is Occurring, by Group and Date Surveyed
Certainty about the reality of global warming was measured on a 9-point scale, where 9 = extremely sure that global warming is occurring; 8 = very sure that global warming is occurring; 7 = somewhat sure that global warming is occurring; 6 = not at all sure that global warming is occurring; 5 = don't know;  4 = not at all sure that global warming is not occurring; 3 = somewhat sure that global warming is not occurring; 2 = very sure that global warming is not occurring; and 1 = extremely sure that global warming is not occurring.  For each class, points for surveys taken November 2008, January 2010, June 2010 and May 2011 are graphed.

Cause of Global Warming.  Three-fourths of Americans in the Alarmed and Concerned groups believe global warming arises from human activities.  On the other hand, among the Doubtful and Dismissive groups, 85% believe it has natural origins or is not happening at all.  Overall, 47% of all Americans believe global warming is caused by man, and 36% believe it is caused by natural changes in the environment.

Effects of Global Warming.  Americans believe global warming will affect people in other parts of the world, and people in future generations, as opposed to affecting Americans at the present time.  Believing in high levels of risk is very prevalent among the Alarmed and Concerned groups, and is absent (0%) among Dismissives.

Impacts in the U. S.  About one-half of Americans think that global warming is already worsening environmental effects in the U. S., causing coastline erosion, flooding, drought, and hurricanes.  A majority believe global warming will increase deaths and injuries in the future from such events as floods, hurricanes, winter storms and wildfires.

Support for Global Warming Policies Among Americans.  In a related survey of 1,010 Americans by Leiserowitz and coworkers in the spring of 2011, opinions on various possible policy initiatives were assessed (see Note 2), without paying attention to the six classes which were the focus of the Six Americas survey.

Priorities for the President and Congress.  The survey asked respondents whether they think developing sources of clean energy should be a low, medium, high, or very high priority for the president and Congress, and whether they think that global warming should be a low, medium, high, or very high priority for the president and Congress.  The results, shown in the graphic below, indicate that over 90% of surveyed Americans believe that clean energy is at least a medium priority (31% favoring a very high priority),

Source: Leiserowitz and coworkers.

and that over 70% of respondents think global warming should be at least a medium priority (13% favoring a very high priority).

Who in Public Life Should Act to Address Global Warming?  The survey asked which segments in the American economic and political world should be called upon to take measures to address global warming, and by how much.  Respondents could choose among the possibilities of “Much more”, “More”, “Currently doing the right amount”, “Less”, and “Much less”.  The results are shown in the graphic below.

Source: Leiserowitz and coworkers.

Outside of governmental agents, respondents felt that corporations and industry, and citizens themselves, are the groups that hold the greatest responsibility for taking action, independent of government intervention.  For  these two groups, at least 63% of respondents felt they should engage in more, or much more, action.  From 57% down to 52% of respondents felt that, in turn, the U. S. Congress, the President, state governors, state legislators, and local government officials, should undertake more or much more initiatives to address global warming. 

More than three-quarters of respondents felt that it was somewhat, very, or extremely important to protect against the harmful effects of global warming on the water supply, the public’s health, agriculture, forests, wildlife, coastlines, sewer systems, and public property.

Political Party Affiliations and Policy.  Depending on the question asked, the policy positions differ sharply, depending on the political party that respondents subscribe to.  Democrats (more liberal), Independents, and Republicans (more conservative) have diminishing sense of priority for global warming as an issue (see the graphic below).

Source: Leiserowitz and coworkers.

On the other hand, all three party affiliations reflect a much higher priority for promoting clean energy (see the graphic below).

Source: Leiserowitz and coworkers.

At least 85% of respondents in all three party affiliations confer a medium, high, or very high priority on promoting clean energy.  To this reporter, on a practical level, this preference for favoring clean energy policies while (for Independents and Republicans) partly opposing policies to address global warming is inconsistent.  By and large, the actual policies and practices that successfully lead to developing a clean energy economy likewise lead to combating the emission of greenhouse gases that produce global warming.  Thus favoring clean energy policies should also lead respondents to favor policies that combat global warming.

This observation is consistent with a consideration of detailed questions in the survey on practices that might be implemented, some of which are presented below.  In many of the cases, there is moderate to strong support for the policy regardless of political persuasion.  Those who support these policy measures across the political spectrum should equally favor clean energy and fighting global warming.  (For other specific policy suggestions, however, differences based on political party still remain.)

How much do you support or oppose requiring electric utilities to produce at least 20% of their electricity from wind, solar, or other renewable energy sources, even if it cost the average household an extra $100 a year?  (Here 42% of Republicans somewhat or strongly oppose the policy.)
How much do you support or oppose signing an international treaty that requires the United States to cut its emissions of carbon dioxide 90% by the year 2050? (Here Independents and Republicans show significant opposition to the treaty.)
How much do you support or oppose funding more research into renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power?
How much do you support or oppose providing tax rebates for people who purchase energy efficient vehicles or solar panels?
How much do you support or oppose increasing taxes on gasoline by 25 cents per gallon and returning the revenues to taxpayers by reducing the federal income tax?  (Strong to very strong opposition to this policy across all parties.)
How much do you support or oppose paying 5% more on your monthly utility bill to get your electricity from renewable energy sources, like wind or solar?
How much do you support or oppose regulations requiring any new home to be more energy efficient. This would increase the initial cost by about $7,500, but save about $17,000 in utility bills over 30 years?

Conclusions.  On the basis of survey results Leiserowitz and coworkers classify Americans into six groups based on their concern, or lack of concern, about global warming. 39% are grouped as Alarmed or Concerned about global warming, believing that global warming is happening and that human activity is responsible.  At the other extreme, 10% are Dismissive, claiming that global warming does not exist, and that no action needs to be taken to address it.

In a related survey, Leiserowitz and coworkers find that a large majority of Americans feel that developing clean energy is a priority for our national leaders, but that global warming is less so.  More than 60% of respondents believe corporate and industrial entities, as well as private citizens, should address global warming; a slightly lower proportion believe that government officials should do so.

When classed according to political party affiliation, Americans differ widely when asked to consider global warming as an issue, with 50% of Republicans (more conservative) giving global warming a low priority as an issue.  If described as promoting clean energy, however, the difference between parties largely disappears.

Thus it appears that attitudes about global warming, and about policies that might relieve some of its harmful effects, are driven by considerations other than the scientific basis that underlies the issue.  This possible complication interferes with the need to develop a strong national policy dealing with global warming and energy policy.


Note 1. Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C. & Smith, N. (2011) Global Warming’s Six Americas, May 2011. Yale University and George Mason University.  New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Note 2. Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C. & Smith, N. (2011) Climate change in the American Mind: Public support for climate & energy policies in May 2011. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

© 2011 Henry Auer

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