Poll: Public Concern on Warming Gains Intensity


March 26, 2006 — -- The intensity of public concern about global warming has spiked sharply over the last decade, along with a change in personal experience: Half of Americans say weather patterns have grown more unstable and temperatures have risen where they live, and 70 percent think weather patterns globally have become more unsettled in recent years.

A vast majority, 85 percent, believes global warming probably is occurring, up slightly from 80 percent in a 1998 poll. But fewer than four in 10 are very sure of it, a level of uncertainty that reflects broad and continued belief that scientists themselves disagree on whether or not it's happening.

Nonetheless, the intensity of concern is up. In 1998, 31 percent called global warming extremely or very important to them personally. Today that's sharply higher, 49 percent, with an additional three in 10 calling it "somewhat" important. It may be that personal experience with disrupted weather patterns -- reported equally across U.S. regions -- is counteracting continued misapprehensions about scientific disagreement.

Moreover, almost seven in 10 in this benchmark survey by ABC News, Time magazine and Stanford University say the government should do more to address global warming. And just under half -- rising sharply among those who are most concerned -- say it should do "much more." But views on what should be done are fractured, with little support for measures such as higher gasoline or electricity taxes to discourage consumption.

A key element in attitudes on global warming is the extent to which doubters continue to influence public perceptions. Despite broad scientific consensus that global warming is happening, 64 percent of Americans perceive "a lot of disagreement" among scientists on that question. Only about a third think most scientists agree that it's begun.

That's essentially unchanged from polls in 1997 and 1998 alike -- despite developments such as a June 2005 statement from 11 national science academies proclaiming that "climate change is real" and calling on governments to take "prompt action" to mitigate it. Others, including the Bush administration, have underscored scientific uncertainties, and this poll finds a sharp political gap in views on whether global warming is occurring, with Republicans much more skeptical about it.

There are other signs of disconnect between scientific and public views. While the academies said that most recent warming can be attributed to human activities, barely over three in 10 Americans believe a rise in world temperatures is caused mainly by things people do. Two in 10 blame mainly natural causes, while the largest group, about half, says it's a combination of both.

Those who think people are the main cause of global warming are much more likely to feel sure it's occurring -- and, more generally, to trust what scientists say about the environment.

Views on scientific consensus predict levels of concern and support for action. People who think scientists mainly agree that global warming is happening are 25 to 30 percentage points more likely than others to think it poses a great threat to the world's environment, to call it extremely or very important personally, and to say the federal government should do much more about it. They're also twice as likely, in an open-ended question, to call global warming the world's greatest environmental problem.

Similarly, people who say weather patterns in their area have grown more unstable in recent years are much more apt -- by 15 to 29 percentage points -- to call global warming highly important, to say it poses a very serious problem and to say the government should do more about it.

Another important factor is familiarity with the subject, and this has grown: Fifty-eight percent of Americans feel at least moderately well-informed about global warming, up about 15 points from the 1997 and 1998 polls, done by researchers at The Ohio State University.

Indeed, these factors -- seeing unstable or warmer weather patterns, feeling well-informed about global warming and believing there's scientific consensus about it -- are, in a statistical model, the strongest predictors of belief that global warming is occurring, concern about its impact and support for government action to mitigate it.

As in previous ABC News polling, more people see global warming as a near-future threat rather than as a current one. Fewer than four in 10 Americans, 38 percent, think it's a serious problem now. But far more -- exceeding eight in 10 -- think it will become a serious problem in the future if nothing is done to reduce it. And most of them, six in 10, say that future is fewer than 50 years off.

About half, 49 percent, think it'll be a "very" serious problem for the United States if nothing is done; more, 57 percent, think it'll be a "very" serious problem for the world.

A look at specific possible impacts tells a similar story. Sizable majorities see threats across the board, but lowest on the list is the sense of personal threat; instead the future is a deeper concern. While 62 percent of Americans say global warming threatens them personally, far fewer, 25 percent, say it threatens them "a great deal." By contrast, 88 percent think it threatens future generations -- 60 percent, a great deal.

Unsurprisingly, people who are sure global warming is happening, or who see it as a big threat -- either personally or to future generations -- are far more apt than others to view it as a serious problem overall, and to favor government action to address it.

In addition to the 60 percent who say global warming poses a significant threat to future generations, 56 percent say it threatens plant and animal species a great deal, and about half say it poses a great deal of threat to the world's environment overall and to poor people in undeveloped countries.

Fewer, about a third, see a great deal of threat to other Americans or to people in other industrialized countries, presumably given their greater resources to mitigate the impacts.

Six in 10 think much can be done to reduce both the amount of global warming and its effect on people and the environment. Fewer, but still over half -- 52 percent -- in general prefer mandated government measures rather than steps that are encouraged but not required, or no government action.

But in most cases there's no broad agreement on how to proceed, and substantial opposition to some measures. Eighty-one percent oppose higher taxes on electricity, 68 percent oppose higher gasoline taxes and 56 percent oppose giving companies tax breaks to build nuclear power plants. On the other hand, 87 percent support tax breaks to develop water, wind and solar power, long popular as alternative energy sources.

On a separate set of possible regulatory actions, just one receives majority support for mandated government action -- reducing the amount of greenhouse gases that power plants are allowed to release into the air, favored by six in 10.

Fewer, 45 percent, say the government should mandate better fuel efficiency in cars, 42 percent say it should require more energy-efficient appliances and a third favor a requirement that new homes and offices be more energy-efficient. All these, however, get support as options the government should encourage via tax breaks. Fewer than two in 10 say the government should stay out of them entirely.

The bigger picture, in terms of overall environmental attitudes, is not positive. Sixty percent of Americans say the natural environment in the world is worse than it was 10 years ago, and 55 percent think it will be worse still 10 years from now. Pessimism peaks, not surprisingly, among people who are most concerned about climate change.

Nor do current actors get much credit: Two-thirds say President Bush did little or nothing to help the environment in the past year. And three-quarters want to see Bush and others -- Congress, American businesses and the American public -- take action to help the environment in the year ahead.

At the same time, just 35 percent of Americans say that in the past year they personally have given a lot of thought to the impact they were having on the environment. That self-reflection peaks among people who say the environment's in bad shape, and those who are most concerned about global warming and most sure it's happening.

Political affiliation and ideology inform views on the environment overall and on global warming in particular: Democrats and liberals are more likely than Republicans and conservatives to say the environment's in bad shape, and more apt to believe that global warming is occurring, to call it a threat and to support government action to address it. Liberals are twice as likely as conservatives to identify climate change as the world's biggest environmental problem.

On many of these, independents more closely resemble Democrats. They're about as likely as Democrats to say global warming is important to them, to see it as potentially a very serious problem in this country, to say it threatens the world's environment a great deal, and to say much can be done to reduce it.

The partisan gap on global warming has shifted: In 1998, 31 percent of Republicans and independents alike were sure that global warming was happening; it was a not-distant 39 percent among Democrats. Today, 46 percent of Democrats and 45 percent of independents are certain -- but just 26 percent of Republicans feel that way. A difference from 1998 to now is the presence of the Bush administration's voice on this issue.

Partisan differences extend to some proposed policies. Democrats, Republicans and independents alike all broadly oppose increasing electricity and gasoline taxes, and favor giving companies tax breaks to produce more water, wind and solar power. In general, though, Republicans are the most apt to favor tax breaks to encourage changes, as opposed to government mandates.

There's been interest in the views of evangelical white Protestants -- a core Republican group -- since 86 evangelical leaders last month signed a statement citing "general agreement" among scientists working on the issue that climate change is happening, and urging federal legislation to deal with it.

This survey, however, finds little resonance for that statement among evangelical white Protestants. They're less likely than others to think about their personal impact on the environment, to see global warming as a threat to the global environment, or to say the government should address it. Evangelicals also are no more likely than others to think scientists agree on the issue -- and they're 12 points less likely than other Americans to trust environmental scientists in the first place.

There are differences among other groups as well. Seniors are less likely than younger adults to be sure that global warming is happening (25 percent are, compared with 41 percent of those under 65). They're also 11 points less likely to say global warming is highly important to them and 17 points less likely to call it a very serious problem.

Just one in four senior citizens thinks global warming threatens the world's environment a great deal; more than half of others think so. It follows, then, that seniors are the least apt to say the government should be doing more to deal with the issue.

Parents with children under 18 have some different views on global warming, perhaps given their stake in future generations. They're eight to 10 points more likely than others to say global warming will be a very serious problem if nothing is done to reduce it, to think it threatens the world's environment a great deal and to want the government to do much more to try to deal with it.

Finally, there are SUVs. One in six adult Americans drives a sports utility vehicle, which have been criticized in some quarters for their low fuel efficiency. Being an SUV driver doesn't affect most views on environmental or global warming issues. But there is one significant difference: SUV drivers are 14 points less likely than people who drive sedans to support a government mandate that cars be made more fuel-efficient.

This ABC News/Time/Stanford University poll was conducted by telephone March 9-14, 2006, among a random national sample of 1,002 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

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