Bloomberg News

Global Warming No Longer Americans’ Top Environmental Concern, Poll Finds

July 02, 2012

 
Global Warming No Longer Americans’ Top Environmental Concern,
Poll Finds

By Juliet Eilperin;Peyton M. Craighill;
     July 3 (Washington Post) -- Climate change no longer ranks
first on the list of what Americans see as the world's biggest
environmental problem, according to a new Washington
Post-Stanford University poll.
     Just 18 percent of those polled name it as their top
environmental concern. That compares with 33 percent who said so
in 2007, amid publicity about a major U.N. climate report and Al
Gore's Oscar-winning documentary about global warming. Today, 29
percent identify water and air pollution as the world's most
pressing environmental issue.
     Still, Americans continue to see climate change as a threat,
caused in part by human activity, and they think government and
businesses should do more to address it. Nearly three-quarters
say the Earth is warming, and just as many say they believe that
temperatures will continue to rise if nothing is done, according
to the poll.
     The findings, along with follow-up interviews with some
respondents, indicate that Washington's decision to shelve action
on climate policy means that the issue has receded — even though
many people link recent dramatic weather events to global
warming. And they may help explain why elected officials feel
little pressure to impose curbs on greenhouse gas emissions.
     "I really don't give it a thought," said Wendy Stewart, a
46-year-old bookkeeper in New York. Although she thinks warmer
winters and summers are signs of climate change, she has noticed
that political leaders don't bring up the subject. "I've never
heard them speak on global warming," she said. "I've never heard
them elaborate on it."
     Michael Joseph, 20, a student at the Wentworth Institute of
Technology in Boston, said he sees extreme weather-related events
such as the Colorado wildfires and the derecho storm that struck
Washington on Friday as "having something to do with climate
change." But, like Stewart, he added, "I don't really hear about
it that much."
     The poll, conducted by phone between June 13 and 21,
included 804 adults nationwide and has a margin of error of 4.5
percentage points.
     Some who feel passionately about the issue say they have
noticed that President Obama is no longer pushing a bill that
would limit greenhouse gas emissions and allow emitters to trade
pollution credits, a system known as "cap and trade." That
proposal stalled in the Senate in 2010.
     "I know that he has to pick his battles," said Margaret
Foshee, 52, of Arlington County, who works in a ski shop after
spending much of her career as a nurse. Describing herself as "a
big Obama supporter," Foshee said she hopes the president will do
more to address climate change if he wins a second term. "If you
don't take a stand on this, we're all doomed. . . . We've got to
do something even if no one else's doing it. America should be a
leader on a project like this."
     Seventy-eight percent of those polled say global warming
will be a serious problem if left alone, with 55 percent saying
the U.S. government should do "a great deal" or "quite a bit"
about it. Sixty-one percent say the same of American businesses.
Just 18 percent say the government is doing enough to solve the
problem; 13 percent say businesses are taking sufficient action.
     While concern about warming crosses party lines, the
intensity is sharply different. More than half of Democrats say
it will be "very serious" if no action is taken, compared with 23
percent of Republicans and more than a third of independents.
     There are also partisan differences in how respondents see
the roles of government and business. About three-quarters of
Democrats say both government and business should do "a great
deal" or "quite a bit" to address global warming. A quarter of
Republicans say government should do that much, and 36 percent
say so about business.
     And although climate legislation has little chance of
passage on Capitol Hill right now, it continues to enjoy public
support. Seventy-seven percent say the government should limit
the amount of carbon dioxide that businesses can emit. It is a
rare instance in which majorities of Democrats, Republicans and
independents agree, albeit with varying intensity. 
     There is a widespread belief that personal actions to help
halt warming would not impose too much of an individual burden.
Just 12 percent say taking such action would make their lives
worse, about 43 percent say it would make their lives better, and
an equal number say it wouldn't make a difference.
     Stanford University communications professor Jon Krosnick,
whose team conducted the poll with The Post, said the survey
shows that public support for action on climate change has
remained level.
     "There's really no movement in recent years in support for
the amount of government effort they want to see put into the
problem," Krosnick noted. "But clearly the salience of the issue
has declined a bit, [so] the pressure the public puts on
government will be less."
     Just under four in 10 polled say global warming is extremely
or very important to them, the lowest percentage since 2006 and
down from 52 percent in 2007. Just 10 percent say it is extremely
important to them personally, down from 15 percent in 2011 and 18
percent in 2007. 
     "The good news is that the public understands that the
global warming problem is serious, and they overwhelmingly
support serious solutions. The sad news is that, with reduced
mainstream-media coverage and with big polluters and their allies
in the media and in Congress falsely screaming hoax, the issue is
not as high a priority," said Gene Karpinski, president of the
League of Conservation Voters. "But record-breaking temperatures,
intense droughts and wildfires, and other climate-related
disasters will hopefully be a wake-up call."
     Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), a climate skeptic and the top
Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee,
said in a statement, "The irony, of course, is that the president
who came into office promising to slow the rise of the oceans has
presided over the complete collapse of the global warming
movement."
     He added that environmentalists have not criticized Obama
because "they've no doubt been assured that if he is reelected,
he will have the 'flexibility' to institute the largest tax
increase in American history through regulations because he could
not do it through legislation."
     People's knowledge about global warming has declined as well
over the past five years. Today, 55 percent say they know a lot
or a moderate amount about it, down from 68 percent.
     While many Republican lawmakers and candidates — including
the party's presumptive presidential nominee, Mitt Romney —
question the connection between human activity and climate
change, a majority of Americans say such a link exists. Thirty
percent say climate change is caused by humans, and 47 percent
say both human and natural factors contribute to it. Just 22
percent think climate change stems from natural causes alone.
     Beth Abbadusky, 70, a retired office worker who lives near
Moline, Ill., said she does not think humans are influencing the
climate.
     "I'm a Christian. I feel that we humans don't have a lot of
control over nature," she said. "We just accept what's going on."
     Abbadusky added that while she favors Romney over Obama,
their positions on the climate "would not be a factor" in her
vote. Overall, she said of politicians and global warming:
"They're not talking much about it anymore."
     Trust in scientific opinion on global warming continues to
be less than robust. About a quarter of the public trusts what
scientists say about the issue "completely" or "a lot," while 35
percent, trust scientists only a little or not at all.
Thirty-eight percent trust scientific opinions a moderate
amount. 
     Part of this lack of trust could be due to how Americans see
climate scientists' motivations for their work. More than a third
of them think that scientists who say climate change is real make
their conclusions based on money and politics. Almost half say
scientists who deny that climate change exists base their
conclusions on their economic and political interests.  
     eilperinj@washpost.com

     Twitter: @eilperin

     craighillp@washpost.com

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