Fewer, Still Most, Back Regulations on Greenhouse Gas Emissions

With the Copenhagen conference reaching its climax, two-thirds of Americans support restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. But that's down from its peak, most oppose U.S. aid for such measures in developing nations – and amid increasingly politicized views, most also now say they distrust environmental scientists.

This ABC News/Washington Post poll finds support for government regulations on the release of greenhouse gases down from 75 percent this spring and summer to 65 percent now. Still, underscoring public concern, government action retains majority support if worked, but would raise energy costs by $10 or even $25 a month; 60 and 55 percent, respectively, back it.

Click here for a PDF with charts and questionnaire.

At the same time, far fewer, 39 percent, say the United States and other wealthy nations should contribute $10 billion a year to developing countries for this purpose. Poorer nations have made assistance a condition for agreement at Copenhagen, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday pledged support for the concept – with a far higher figure, $100 billion a year, by 2020.

These views come among a backdrop of increasing politicization on climate change – and heightened skepticism about scientific pronouncements on the subject. Fifty-six percent now say they don't trust the things scientists say about the environment – up from 49 percent, itself a substantial number, a year and a half ago. Similarly, 62 percent perceive "a lot of disagreement" among scientists on whether global warming is happening, up points points from summer 2008.

It's not clear that this change stems from the controversy surrounding the disclosure of e-mails from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, since similar shifts preceded that development. An ABC/Post poll last month, done before the e-mail disclosure, found an eight-point drop (to 72 percent) in views that global warming is happening.

PARTISAN – As in the last poll, the change is highly partisan in nature. The rise in distrust of what scientists say about the environment, and the sense that scientists disagree on climate change, both have occurred entirely among Republicans and independents who lean toward the Republican Party – up by 13 points and 10 points, respectively, in this group.

Today, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents by 59-39 percent say they trust what scientists say about the environment, while Republicans and independents who lean Republican do not, by 75-22 percent. Leaned Democrats perceive scientific consensus, by 55-43 percent, while leaned Republicans do not, by 78-21 percent.

The divisions carry through to policy. Seventy-nine percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents favor government regulation of greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to reduce global warming; far fewer leaned Republicans, 52 percent, agree. At the $10 and $25 price impacts, regulation retains majority support among leaned Democrats, but slips beneath a majority among leaned Republicans.

Trust in scientists, and a sense they agree, are powerful factors in these views. Americans who trust what scientists say about the environment are nearly twice as likely to support regulation of greenhouse gases as those who are distrustful, 89 percent vs. 48 percent. Among those who perceive scientific consensus on the issue, similarly, 84 percent support government measures; among those who see substantial disagreement, support for regulation drops to 54 percent.

Indeed, in a regression analysis testing these and other factors, three stand out as the strongest predictors of views on regulation of greenhouse gases: trusting scientists, believing they agree with one another on whether global warming is occurring, and holding conservative political views.

President Obama, for his part, has 45 percent approval for his handling of the global warming issue, with 39 percent disapproving and a substantial 15 percent unsure – considerably more undecided than on other issues. His approval is vastly higher among people who trust scientists, think there's consensus on global warming and support government regulation of greenhouse gases.

METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Dec. 10-13, 2009, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results for the full sample have a 3.5-point error margin. Click here for a detailed description of sampling error. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.