Concern Soars About Global Warming as World's Top Environmental Threat


April 20, 2007 — -- After a year of increasing scientific alarms, public concern about global warming has risen dramatically. The number of Americans identifying it as the world's single biggest environmental problem is double what it was a year ago.

Climate change now places far ahead of any other environmental problem in the public's mind; 33 percent now cite it as the world's top environmental issue, a very high level of agreement on an open-ended question. That's soared from 16 percent a year ago.

The related issue of air pollution ranks a distant second, cited by 13 percent, with all other mentions in the single digits.

This ABC News/Washington Post/Stanford University poll also finds a 10-point increase in the belief that global warming is caused mostly by human activity (to 41 percent, up from 31 percent last year); and a significant decline -- the first in a decade -- in the belief that many scientists disagree on whether global warming is happening.

While 56 percent of Americans still think there's substantial scientific disagreement on global warming, that's down from 64 percent last year (and similar levels in the late 1990s.)

It matters: People who think scientists agree on the issue are much more apt to see it as a very serious problem, to call it important personally, to believe it's mainly caused by human activity, to think it can be addressed and to say the government should do more (indeed, much more) about it.

For the first time, a small majority (52 percent) say global warming is important to them personally. While that's not meaningfully different from last year's 49 percent, it's nearly double the level of concern in 1997 -- just 27 percent. And more than six in 10 Americans (62 percent) now feel they know a good deal about global warming -- again similar to last year, but well up from its level a decade ago.

A variety of other measures of awareness and concern about global warming have held steady from last year, e.g., 84 percent believe it's occurring, 86 percent believe it'll be a serious problem if uncorrected, 63 percent think it indeed can be reduced and 70 percent say the federal government should do more to address it.

This poll supports a series of ABC News reports, "Planet Earth 2007: Seven Ways to Help Save the World," culminating in a "20/20" broadcast hosted by Diane Sawyer that airs Friday, April 20 at 10 p.m. EDT.

The survey finds that nearly all Americans -- 94 percent -- say they're willing to make changes in their lives in order to help the environment generally; 80 percent say so even if it means some personal inconvenience. In one key area, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) say they're already making efforts to reduce energy consumption in their homes.

But the level of commitment is markedly lower. Far fewer, 50 percent, are "very" willing to make changes to benefit the environment; 45 percent are very willing if it means personal inconvenience; and 31 percent are doing "a great deal" to reduce their energy consumption. These are sizable numbers of people, but there's much room for growth.

Other questions produce an equivocal assessment of environmental commitment. On the one hand, few people -- only about one in 10 -- say they base their decisions where to shop or what to buy on the basis of the store or manufacturer's environmental policies. At the same time, majorities support local laws requiring a range of conservation measures including recycling, use of water-saving devices and use of energy-efficient light bulbs.

In terms of specific actions:

HEAT/AC: About a quarter of Americans, 26 percent, say they currently keep their home a little warmer in the summer or cooler in the winter than they'd like it to be. But vastly more -- 67 percent -- say they'd be willing to do that to help improve the environment.

GROCERY BAGS: There's extremely broad support for a law requiring supermarkets to use shopping bags made of paper or other recyclable material, a step pioneered (in this country) by San Francisco last month. Eighty-two percent would favor such a law in their own area.

RECYCLING: While just 20 percent say recycling currently is required by law in their area, 75 percent say they recycle some trash anyway (similar to the levels reported in polls in 1997 and 2000). And significantly, where recycling is not required now, three-quarters (74 percent) say they'd support a local law making it mandatory.

WATER: Nearly seven in 10 (69 percent) report having either a low-flow shower head or low-volume toilet in their home. And again, majorities support requiring these. Seventy-one percent say they support requiring newly installed toilets to be the low-flow variety; fewer, but still 59 percent, support mandating low-flow shower heads. (Indeed, a 1992 federal law requires manufacture of low-flow toilets and shower heads; a variety of local laws also are in place.)

BULBS: Again a substantial majority, 70 percent, say they use at least some compact fluorescent light bulbs in their home. (These last longer and use less energy, but cost more than regular light bulbs.) Fifty-six percent support laws requiring such bulbs -- much lower than support for laws requiring recyclable shopping bags or trash recycling, but still a majority.

TIRES: Among those who have a car, two-thirds (68 percent) say they or someone else has checked their tire pressure within the last month. While that's a sizable majority, it means one in three have not checked their tire pressure recently. (And some of those who do check may be just eyeballing it, rather than using a tire pressure gauge.) It makes a difference: Properly inflated tires improve gas mileage.

In one notable demographic difference, Republicans are much less likely to be "very willing" to change their personal behavior -- 36 percent, compared with 51 percent of independents and 59 percent of Democrats. Willingness to change peaks among liberals, and it's 10 points higher among women than among men.

Support for local laws also relies to some extent on political affiliation and ideology. But three measures get majority support across the spectrum -- from liberals, moderates and conservatives; and Democrats, independents and Republicans alike: Mandatory recyclable shopping bags, mandatory recycling and mandatory low-flow toilets in new installations.

Support for mandatory low-flow shower heads and compact fluorescent light bulbs slips under half among conservatives, and drops to about four in 10 Republicans, but maintains majorities in other groups.

There also are continued very sharp partisan and ideological differences on global warming. For example, while 47 percent of liberals and 42 percent of Democrats call it the world's leading environment problem, far fewer Republicans (26 percent), independents (29 percent) and conservatives (19 percent) agree.

Nonetheless, this perception has increased among all groups in the last year -- the number of Democrats who call global warming the top problem has gained 24 points, but it's up by 16 points among Republicans and by 11 points among independents. (It's up sharply among liberals and moderates, but much more slightly among conservatives.)

In another example, 54 percent of liberals and 51 percent of Democrats believe people are the main cause of global warming, while only about half as many conservatives or Republicans (29 percent and 24 percent, respectively) agree. And while 70 percent of Democrats call global warming a very serious problem for the future, just three in 10 Republicans agree.

There also are some differences by age, with adults younger than 40 more apt than their elders to think that global warming will be a very serious problem if left unchecked (65 percent vs. 52 percent), to think it actually can be addressed (70 percent vs. 58 percent) and to say the government should be doing more about it (75 percent vs. 66 percent).

Younger adults also are more likely, by a 16-point margin, to think that most scientists agree that global warming is occurring.

Even with the concern about global warming, there's relatively little willingness to use higher taxes to hold down energy consumption. Like last year, about eight in 10 Americans oppose increasing taxes on electricity so people use less of it, and two-thirds oppose raising gasoline taxes with the same aim. Sixty-two percent, however, continue to favor requiring lower greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Six in 10 feel they know at least a moderate amount about warming, but fewer seem fully informed. For example, while 56 percent think average temperatures around the world have been higher in the last three years than previously, that leaves a substantial number who don't think this is so. In fact the last three years have been among the six warmest in records since the late 1880s.

Fewer than last year, 41 percent rather than 50 percent, say temperatures in their own county have been higher; 17 percent (up from 9 percent) say it's been cooler. There seems a likely reason: This poll happens to have been conducted during an unusual springtime cold snap in much of the country.

Politically, trust to deal with the issue tilts heavily to the Democrats. Americans by 59-19 percent say they trust the Democrats in Congress over President Bush to handle global warming, and by 53-21 percent prefer the Democrats on the environment overall.

To the administration's possible further dismay, the public also trusts the Democrats over Bush to handle issues involving the national parks, by 57-24 percent.

That's despite steps such as Bush's "Centennial Initiative" to match $1 billion in federal funding for the parks system with $1 billion in private donations by 2016, and his designation of an island chain northwest of Hawaii as a national monument, creating the largest protected marine reserve in the world.

The public's complaint, however, rests in perceptions of how the parks are best used. Seventy-nine percent of Americans say the government's priority in managing national parks should be to protect natural habitats and wildlife, not to provide public access for recreational use. But most think the government has the opposite priority: Just 34 percent think it's more focused on habitat and wildlife; 56 percent instead think it's mainly focused on access for recreation.

Finally, this survey also finds a shift to majority opposition to new drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, with 40 percent in favor, 56 percent opposed. That compares to an even split in 2005 and 2002 polls, but opposition was as high or higher in earlier polls, in 2001 and as far back as 1989.

This ABC News/Washington Post/Stanford University poll was conducted by telephone April 5-10, 2007, 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.

This survey, produced in consultation with Prof. Jon Krosnick and the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, builds on an ABC News/Time magazine/Stanford poll on global warming in 2006, and 1997 and 1998 environmental polls by Krosnick at Ohio State University.

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