Poll: Many See No Need to Worry About Warming

ByABC News
June 15, 2005, 6:41 AM

June 15, 2005 — -- Nearly six in 10 Americans think global warming likely is under way and as many accept that human activities play a significant role. But -- like the Bush administration -- most part company with scientists' calls for prompt government action.

That lack of urgency stems from perceptions of the hazard: While a vast majority, nearly eight in 10, believe global warming will pose a serious threat to future generations, far fewer -- just one-third -- think it will affect their own lives. The majority who see the risk as a distant one overwhelmingly prefer more study to immediate action.

The majority view aligns in this respect with the Bush administration, which has focused on uncertainties in climate science, urged further study and supported only voluntary steps through 2012 to slow greenhouse gas emissions. The administration has rejected the Kyoto treaty on global warming, which went into effect in February and now has 150 signatories.

Contrasting the administration's position, in a statement last week the scientific academies in 11 countries, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, said the problem "is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action." It cited "strong evidence that significant global warming is occurring" and that most of it likely can be attributed to human activity.

Bush was scheduled to speak on energy policy today, focusing in part on conservation and efficiency measures that the White House says will reduce peak electricity demand in 2020 by the equivalent of 170 power plants.

In this ABC News/Washington Post poll, 59 percent of Americans say they're convinced ("mostly" or "completely") that global warming is occurring, and 61 percent believe human activities such as driving cars and burning fossil fuel are a significant contributor. But far fewer, 38 percent, call it an urgent problem that requires immediate government action. Instead 58 percent say global warming is a longer-term problem that needs more study before government action is taken.

As noted, views on the immediacy of the threat are a main driver in these attitudes. Among the third of Americans who see global warming as a serious threat in their own lifetimes, 67 percent favor immediate action. But among the two-thirds who don't see an imminent threat, far fewer -- 24 percent -- call for prompt action, while seven in 10 instead say more study is needed first.

Similarly, the six in 10 who believe humans are a big part of the problem are more likely to see it as a threat in their own lifetimes, and to favor urgent government action.

In addition to the perceived lack of an immediate threat, public resistance to prompt government action may reflect questions on what that action might be, particularly in terms of its costs and impacts. The administration cited economic costs among the reasons it rejected the Kyoto accords. Willingness to sacrifice to meet a threat depends on both the nature and immediacy of the threat, and the specific sacrifices required.

The number of Americans who don't see a short-term, personal threat from global warming has held steady, between 65 percent and 69 percent, in polls since 1997. This poll is the first to ask separately about a longer-term threat that may impact future generations.

It's notable that not only do most people disagree with the science academies on the need for prompt action, but that significant minorities -- four in 10 -- doubt that global warming is occurring and that human activities are a significant cause. Indeed, just 23 percent are "completely" convinced that global warming has begun.

Such doubts may reflect not just the administration's view, but also the language used by scientists to describe the situation. The academies, for instance, report "strong evidence" rather than scientific certainty of global warming and say it "likely" is due to human activities, and explicitly say the "lack of full scientific certainty about some aspects of climate change" shouldn't delay an immediate response.

Older adults are more skeptical on this subject -- they're much less likely to be convinced that global warming is happening, to think human actions are a significant part of the problem and to expect adverse effects in their own lifetimes. Such concerns peak among the youngest adults, 18-29; young adults, however, are no more likely to support immediate government action.

Mirroring the political debate about government policy, there also are deep partisan and ideological divides on global warming. Republicans are less likely than Democrats and independents to think it's under way, to see human activities as a cause, to think they'll see the impact, or to favor urgent action to address it.

This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone June 2-5, 2005, 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.