Fuel Costs Boost Conservation Efforts; 7 in 10 Reducing 'Carbon Footprint'

ABC News/Planet Green/Stanford University poll finds support for drilling.

August 9, 2008 — -- High energy prices are double-teaming with environmental concerns to prompt broad conservation efforts, with seven in 10 Americans saying they're trying to reduce their "carbon footprint," chiefly by driving less, using less electricity and recycling.

More controversial are policy responses to the nation's energy problems: Majorities in this ABC News/Planet Green/Stanford University poll support oil drilling in protected coastal and wilderness areas.

Most support higher taxes on oil company profits, stricter fuel efficiency rules for cars and controls on trading by investors that may affect gas prices. And 44 percent favor building nuclear plants -- while not a majority, the most in 28 years.

Click here for a PDF with charts and full questionnaire.

Overall, even with broad conservation efforts underway, 64 percent now rate "finding new energy sources" as more important than improving conservation -- up 9 points since 2001.

Previous polls have shown broadest support for alternative energy such as wind, solar and hydro power; today's support for oil drilling, and lessened objection to nuclear power, indicate the level of concern raised by the current energy situation.

Global Warming

Another element is global warming; with concern still running high -- albeit slightly down from a year ago -- most Americans support a so-called cap-and-trade system intended to limit greenhouse gas emissions. And two-thirds say the U.S. government should act on global warming even if other countries do less.

Nearly three-quarters believe global warming can be reduced only if individuals make major changes in their lifestyles.

Fewer, though, 44 percent, think addressing the issue also will cause them financial hardship, and fewer still foresee "serious" hardship.

Many do see reason to act: Eight in 10 believe both that global warming is happening and that it poses a threat to future generations, and about six in 10 think it's caused mainly by things people or businesses do.

Overall, 56 percent of Americans give a negative rating to "the condition of the natural environment in the world today." And environmentalism remains a political plus: People by 42 percent to 6 percent say they'd be more likely, rather than less likely, to support a candidate who's a strong environmentalist, similar to the gap on this question in a 1999 poll.

At the same time, well under half of Americans, 41 percent, describe themselves personally as environmentalists – fewer than in any of six Gallup polls to ask the question from 1989 through 2000, and far below its peak, 78 percent in 1991. Thirty percent of Republicans call themselves environmentalists; it's 50 percent among Democrats.

Ready to Act?

As noted, this poll finds broad conservation efforts under way: Seventy-one percent of Americans say they're trying to reduce their use of energy or goods whose production created greenhouse gases – that is, to shrink their carbon footprint.

Among those who are taking steps, 59 percent say they're using less gasoline -- driving less, using smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, carpooling, taking mass transit and the like. That's a dramatic shift but not a surprising one, given $4 gasoline.

But it's not all: About as many, 60 percent, also say they're cutting their consumption of power (and water), and 33 percent are recycling.

Why? A third say they're taking conservation measures mainly to improve the environment, but a quarter instead say it's mainly to save money -- and more, 41 percent, say it's for both reasons equally.

Among the nearly three in 10 who are not trying to reduce their carbon footprint, reasons vary, but a fifth say it's mainly because they simply don't know how to proceed, which suggests they might take action given more information. Others are more resistant: More than half in this group say it's unnecessary, too expensive, too inconvenient, won't do any good, or that they just aren't interested.

Beyond conserving, many consumers are buying products that are marketed as environmentally friendly. Three-quarters believe such products truly are better for the environment; two-thirds try to buy them at least occasionally; and nearly half, 46 percent, try to buy them "whenever possible."

Nearly seven in 10 also say such products have become more available in the last few years -- an example of the market meeting consumer interest.

Who's Responsible for Going Green?

Businesses, in another measure, get as much trust as the government in reducing global warming: The public divides evenly, 43-45 percent, on which would do a better job -- the government, through laws intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; or businesses, through market competition.

Nonetheless, 61 percent also say the federal government should do more than it's doing now to try to reduce global warming, down somewhat from its 2006 and 2007 levels (68 and 70 percent) though still easily a majority. There are vast partisan gaps on both questions, with Democrats far more supportive of government action, Republicans far less so.

As noted, 44 percent think measures to reduce global warming will cause financial hardship to people like them. However, fewer, 32 percent, believe such efforts will damage the U.S. economy, even if other countries don't follow suit – and as many, 33 percent, say taking unilateral action actually would help the U.S. economy.

That result runs counter to the Bush administration's position that action must be matched by other countries to avoid putting the United States at an economic disadvantage.

Among possible government actions, 78 percent support stricter fuel efficiency standards for cars, 63 percent favor oil drilling in coastal waters where it's currently prohibited, 55 percent favor drilling in wilderness areas, 61 percent say the government should restrict oil trading by investors and 55 percent favor higher taxes on oil company profits. (Barack Obama, notably, shifted this past week toward offshore drilling.)

There are sharp partisan gaps here, as well; Republicans are 20 or more points more apt than Democrats to support oil drilling in currently closed areas, while Democrats are far more likely to favor a windfall oil tax, higher fuel standards and restrictions on oil trading. Non-environmentalists and environmentalists divide on most of these as well.

There are great divisions, as well, on nuclear power plants: Sixty percent of Republicans favor building more of them; just 33 percent of Democrats agree.

And there's a huge gap between the sexes: Sixty percent of men, but just 29 percent of women, favor building nuclear plants. And while nuclear power has been proposed as a partial solution to global warming, its support notably low, just 25 percent, among people who see global warming as an "extremely" important problem.

Government Limits

Then there's cap and trade, a system under which the government would issue permits limiting the amount of greenhouse gases companies can emit, then allow them to sell these permits to each other.

At first blush 59 percent support the idea, and that rises to 74 percent given the argument that a similar system has worked to curb emissions that cause acid rain.

There is price sensitivity: Compared with the 59 percent level, support holds steady, 57 percent, if a cap-and-trade system raised electric bills by $10 a month. But it's lower, 47 percent, with 51 percent opposed, if the price tag hit $25 a month.

Again, cap and trade is more popular among Democrats, less so among Republicans. Still, in the most basic measure, 52 percent of Republicans support cap-and-trade, vs. 66 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents.

It's Getting Hot in Here

In an open-ended question 25 percent of Americans identify global warming as the single biggest environmental problem in the world, down 8 points from last year but still well up from 2006. There's been a scant 4-point rise in the number who cite energy or oil, now 11 percent.

There's also an 8-point drop in this poll, to 33 percent, in the number who think rising temperatures are caused mainly by things people do, rather than natural causes or both about equally.

At the same time, when those who blame both equally are asked which contributes more, the number citing human activity rises to 58 percent. (It's 63 percent when "things people do" is expanded to include commercial and industrial activities.)

Eighty percent, as noted, think global warming is occurring; it peaked at 85 percent in 2006.

There's also a slight, 5-point dip in the number who say global warming is important to them personally, now 47 percent. When those who take a middle position are asked how they lean, the number calling it personally important rises to 66 percent.

The declines in these measures come at a time of reduced media attention on global warming, in a year when the election and the economy have taken center stage.

A database search finds 50 percent fewer news stories on global warming in the month before this poll was conducted, compared with the month before last year's survey; and a similar 45 percent fewer in the six months prior.

The perceived immediacy of threat remains a factor in concern.

Thirty-seven percent of Americans think that if nothing is done to address global warming it'll pose a serious threat to them in their own lifetimes – a new high, by a narrow margin, in polls since 1997. But far more, 73 percent, think it'll pose a serious threat in their children's lifetimes. And 81 percent think it'll pose a serious threat to "future generations." Naturally, those who feel threatened now are much more likely to call it personally important, 69 percent vs. 33 percent.

Nearly six in 10 think global warming is making weather events like droughts and storms more frequent. But looking at specific events, a majority ties only one, the melting of polar ice, to global warming – 74 percent. Many fewer, 50 percent, think global warming is associated with the recent severe storms in Southeast Asia, and fewer associate it with the recent flooding in the Midwest (45 percent) or fires in the West (38 percent).

These views also relate strongly to concern. People who see these weather events as associated with global warming are much more likely to be concerned about global warming and to support government action to address it.

In their own experience, 43 percent say weather patterns in the county where they live have been more unstable in the last three years; that's down from 54 and 52 percent, respectively, the last two years. There could be a seasonal effect; those polls were done in March and April, this one in late July.

Science of Warming

Important factors in views on global warming are trust in scientists and perceptions of scientific debate.

Americans divide about evenly, 47-49 percent, on whether or not they trust what scientists say about the environment; those who trust scientists are far likelier to express concern about global warming and to favor action to address it.

Moreover, most Americans, 57 percent, continue to think there's "a lot of disagreement" among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening; again, those who instead think scientists mainly agree (39 percent) are more apt to be concerned about it, and to want to see it addressed. (Even more, 62 and 63 percent, think scientists disagree on how much of a threat global warming poses, and what's causing it.)

Holding other factors constant, the single strongest predictor of concern about global warming is the belief that it's caused by human activity. Concern also is predicted by trust in what scientists say about the issue, belief that scientists agree, and the level of attention people are paying to global warming.

The Great Divides

Attitudes about global warming split along partisan and ideological lines; for instance, 53 percent of Democrats call it a very serious problem, compared with one in five Republicans. Concern also is higher among women, younger adults and non-whites, and lower among men, whites and evangelical Protestants.

Women, notably, are much more likely than men to think the environment is in poor shape (63 percent vs. 47 percent), to think that global warming is caused by human activity (64 percent vs. 52 percent) and to say it's personally important to them (72 percent vs. 59 percent).

Contrary to some suggestions, concern about global warming is lower among evangelical white Protestants (who are disproportionately Republicans and conservatives). They're less apt than other Americans to see global warming as very serious (26 percent vs. 40 percent), to say it's personally important to them (35 percent vs. 48 percent) or to say the government should be doing more about it (46 percent vs. 64 percent).

METHODOLOGY: This ABC News/Planet Green/Stanford University poll was conducted by telephone July 23-28, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,000 adults. The results from the full survey have a 3-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.

This survey, produced in consultation with Prof. Jon Krosnick and the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, builds on an ABC News/Washington Post/Stanford poll in 2007, an ABC News/Time magazine/Stanford poll in 2006 and polls by Krosnick at The Ohio State University in 1997 and 1998. Planet Green is a 24-hour lifestyle and entertainment television network launched in June by Discovery, LLC.

Click here for a PDF with charts and full questionnaire.