"What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?"
Global warming? Not likely, even if you believe it's real. Like most Americans, you would probably place it at or near the end of a list of 20 problems, far below immediate issues like the economy, terrorism, and national security. However, many news reports emphasized the bottom ranking of global warming, suggesting Americans are unimpressed. The Pew Research Center came out with a similar finding in January.
Like the other polls, the Gallup survey found that most Americans (53 percent) believe it's real. But skepticism over the gravity of the consequences has risen sharply since the same questions were first asked in the annual poll conducted by Gallup in 1997. During that 13 year period the percentage of respondents who believe the effects have been exaggerated climbed from 31 percent to 48 percent.
And scientists, according to the participants in the Gallup poll, aren't too sure themselves.
But that's contrary to one major study at the University of Illinois at Chicago. That study surveyed 3,146 earth scientists around the world and found overwhelming agreement that the world has been warming over the past 200 years (90 percent) and human activities are a significant factor (82 percent.) Significantly, this survey involved scientists who are closest to the issue. Climate scientists were almost universal (97 percent) in their belief that humans are largely to blame. Meteorologists, who deal primarily with near-term weather conditions, were less convinced (64 percent.) Climate scientists focus on long-term changes, like global climate change, leading Peter Doran, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at Illinois, to conclude:
"The take-home message is, the more you know about the field of climate science, the more you're likely to believe in global warming and humankind's contribution to it."
Although the polls do not all agree on the numbers, or even the trends, the underlying message is that most people are now recognizing that global warming is real, the consequences are significant, but at the moment they don't rank up there with getting a job and protecting the country from terrorists.
But there is one fundamental problem that all pollsters face when quizzing the public about such things as global climate and the environment. We tend to take a short-term view.
At this very moment the nation is confronting one of the most devastating human-induced environmental disasters in its history. Could any environmental poll conducted while oil is washing up on beaches along the entire Gulf coast not be affected by the dreadful images that we see, day after day after day?
Public opinion changes, sometimes on whims, sometimes on disasters. But if there's one thing all of these polls show, it's that people are paying attention now, more so than ever before. There may be some confusion, and the consequences may seem distant and imprecise, but most Americans are now coming to grips with global warming and what we need to do to stop it.