77 percent of Americans now favor regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, including 64 percent of Republicans, according to a new national survey released June 8 by researchers at Yale and George Mason Universities – even as the U.S. Senate prepares to vote on a resolution to block the EPA from doing so. By 61-18 percent a majority believe that global warming is happening, but a plurality are under the impression that “there is a lot of disagreement among scientists” about this.

Post by Rick Piltz

From the Yale University Office of Public Affairs press release:

For Immediate Release: June 8, 2010

Poll: American Opinion on Climate Change Warms Up

New Haven, Conn.—Public concern about global warming is once again on the rise, according to a national survey released today by researchers at Yale and George Mason Universities. The results come as the U.S. Senate prepares to vote this week on a resolution to block the EPA from regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

Since January, public belief that global warming is happening rose four points, to 61 percent, while belief that it is caused mostly by human activities rose three points, to 50 percent. The number of Americans who worry about global warming rose three points, to 53 percent. And the number of Americans who said that the issue is personally important to them rose five points, to 63 percent.

“The stabilization and slight rebound in public opinion is occurring amid signs the economy is starting to recover, along with consumer confidence, and as memories of unusual snowstorms and scientific scandals recede,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. “The BP oil disaster is also reminding the public of the dark side of dependence on fossil fuels, which may be increasing support for clean energy policies.”

Americans who said President Obama and Congress should make developing sources of clean energy a high priority increased 11 points, to 71 percent, while those who said that global warming should be a high priority rose six points, to 44 percent. In a seven-point increase since January, 69 percent of Americans said that the United States should make a large or medium effort to reduce global warming even if it incurs large or moderate economic costs.

Current public support for specific policy options (and changes since January, 2010) include:

o 77 percent support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant (+6)

o 87 percent support funding more research into renewable energy sources (+2)

o 83 percent support tax rebates for people who buy fuel-efficient vehicles and solar panels (+1)

o 65 percent support signing an international treaty that requires the United States to cut its emissions of carbon dioxide 90 percent by the year 2050 (+4)

o 61 percent support requiring electric utilities to produce at least 20 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources, even if it cost the average household an extra $100 per year (+2)

o Support for expanding offshore drilling for oil and natural gas off the U.S. coast fell to 62 percent (-5)

“More than seven out of 10 Americans say the United States should take action to power our nation with clean energy,” said Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. “Even more Americans support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, including 64 percent of Republicans.”

The results come from a nationally representative survey of 1,024 American adults, age 18 and older. The sample was weighted to correspond with U.S. Census Bureau parameters. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percent, with 95 percent confidence. The survey was designed by researchers at Yale and George Mason Universities and conducted from May 14, 2009 to June 1, 2010 by Knowledge Networks, using an online research panel of American adults.

The data from this and other surveys show significant differences in climate and energy policy preferences by political party identification, with Democrats more likely than Republicans to support various kinds of government action to address climate change and promote clean energy technologies. While the report on data from this survey doesn’t break down public views on various science-related global warming questions by partisanship, all indications from the current political situation suggest that political cues are shaping much of public opinion on global warming, as opposed to knowledgeable or strongly held views on climate science per se.

Perhaps the shift of a few percentage points since January back in the direction of what may be greater concern about global warming is attributable to factors such as a shift in attention from winter snowstorms to the oil blowout disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps widely shared general trust in the science community is reasserting itself somewhat as the bogus ‘climategate’ e-mail and IPCC controversies decline in public salience. It is impossible to conclude much about causative factors from the raw unanalyzed data in the current survey. The findings for various questions offer a mixed bag of sometimes seemingly inconsistent responses.

Apart from marginal shifts in opinion in one direction or another, it appears from the survey data that there remains a major gap between how the public as a whole thinks about the climate change problem and how the climate science community understands it. Until that gap is closed, it is difficult to see how public support for the dramatic changes needed to deal with climate change will be maintained over time, when the going gets rough and conflicting pressures present themselves. Without that, government action will be constrained by hardball partisanship, anti-government ideology, and the influence of the disinformation campaign.

Still, if the needed political leadership is prepared to step up to the challenge of speaking truthfully to the public about global climate disruption, enacting tough legislative and regulatory policy, and achieving more rigorous international treaty agreements, the survey data suggest that there is a basis for public support that can be cultivated, strengthened, and drawn upon. 

For copies of the new “Climate Change in the American Mind” survey reports:

Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in 2010 (1.8 MB download)

Public Support for Climate and Energy Policies in 2010 (2.0 MB download)

Earlier CSW posts:

March 17: Is stalled Senate climate legislation action linked to polls suggesting decline in public concern? (A more careful look at some recent survey findings suggests that fears about declining public trust in scientists and concern about climate change have likely been overblown.)

February 8: How does the politicization of climate change affect public opinion? (The fierce politicization of the climate change problem raises questions as to whether public opinion has been shaped more by partisan conflict than by an understanding, or a lack thereof, of the scientific findings per se.)