Global Warming and the Pollsters: Who's Right?

Is the glass half empty, or half full?

Public opinion polls on global warming seem to be all over the map these days. A Gallup poll in March indicated that nearly half the people in the United States think the consequences are exaggerated and they're not particularly worried about their future. But two polls released in the last few days show that most Americans believe global warming is real, the consequences could be great, and it's largely our fault.

All three of these polls were conducted by professionals, so why do they seemingly disagree? Mainly, it's in how the questions were asked, and how the data was interpreted. On the surface, it appears that Americans are deeply divided over the issue, wafting back and forth because it was a mild winter, or it's a hot spring, neither of which have anything to do with global climate change.

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"Several national surveys released during the last eight months have been interpreted as showing that fewer and fewer Americans believe that climate change is real, human-caused and threatening to people," said Jon Krosnick, a professor of communication and of political science at Stanford University. "But our new survey shows just the opposite," he said in releasing a new national poll conducted by Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment.

The Stanford poll was conducted June 1-7, and it found that three out of four Americans believe the Earth is warming because of human activity, and they want the government to stop it. But that's down 10 percent from a Stanford poll in 2007, dropping from 84 percent to 74 percent.

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Public concern is going down?

Not according to another poll released on June 8, showing that public concern is growing, not dropping. That national poll, conducted by Yale and George Mason Universities from May 14, 2009 to June 1, 2010, found that 61 percent of Americans believe global warming is real (an increase of four points since January) and 50 percent (an increase of three points) believe it is caused mostly by humans.

The numbers don't match precisely, but both polls show that most Americans now believe in the urgency of addressing climate change, even if it means paying a hefty price.

The Yale study took a broader look at public attitudes toward many environmental issues, and the results show that Americans care deeply about what we are doing to the Earth. Some 77 percent, for example, "support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant," up 6 percent, and of course that's the dominant greenhouse gas, so this appears to be strong support for dealing with global warming.

In that same poll, 87 percent support funding more research into renewable energy sources, and 65 percent support signing an international treaty that requires the United States to cut its emissions of carbon dioxide 90 percent by 2050. Again, those are global warming issues.

So Americans feel deeply about the environment, and the control of human activities that contribute to global warming, so what's with that Gallup poll suggesting that we don't give a rip?

According to Stanford's Krosnick, the Gallup poll underestimated public concern because it focused on a public opinion question developed by George Gallup in the 1930s. It's known among pollsters as the "most important problem."

How would you answer this question?

"What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?"

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