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Multiple Polls Reveal Overwhelming Concern about Global Warming among Americans

Noisy minority, confusing questions and misleading headlines have created wrong impression, researchers say

Jun 15, 2010

WASHINGTON—Much-ballyhooed polls from Gallup, CNN and the Pew Research Center have led our short-attention-span nation to believe that Americans are increasingly skeptical about the very existence of global warming.

However, Stanford University political science and psychology professor Jon Krosnick, who has conducted surveys about climate change since at least 1995, questions that conclusion, and evidently has the goods to back up his doubts. Belief in the reality, human causes and threats of global warming is alive and very much kicking, he maintains.

His June 1-7 countrywide telephone poll of 1,000 adults indicates that 74 percent thought the Earth’s temperature had heated up during the last 100 years, 75 percent attribute warming to human behavior, and 86 percent want the federal government to limit air pollution emissions from businesses.

Two other recent polls support Krosnick's assessment -- including one that surveyed small business owners -- and taken together they are giving Senators, hemming and hawing about climate legislation, something new to think about as election season approaches.

Krosnick's survey did turn up a small decline in the proportion of people who believe global warming has been happening—from 84 percent in 2007 to 80 percent in 2008 to 74 percent today.

But a statistical analysis attributed that drop to perceptions of recent weather changes by what Krosnick called the minority of Americans skeptical of climate scientists.

“If somebody tells you that Americans are cooling on global warming, keep in mind that 74 percent is a gigantic number in America,” Krosnick told a Washington audience during a June 10 briefing presented by the bipartisan nonprofit Environmental and Energy Study Institute.

“Huge majorities of Americans still believe the Earth has been gradually warming as the result of human activity and want the government to institute regulations to stop it.”

Headlines that claim otherwise are misleading and likely misinterpreting data, says Krosnick, a senior fellow with Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment. The National Science Foundation funded his latest survey.

He chastised publications for headlines such as “Poll Finds Americans More Confused About Climate,” “Public More Complacent About Climate Change,” and “Americans No Longer Swallowing Global Warming Dogma.”

The Stanford numbers were just part of a recent, albeit small, outbreak of what might be called “pollitis” in the capital region.

George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and Yale University released a joint poll titled “American Opinion on Climate Change Warms Up.” And not to be outdone, the Small Business Majority touted a poll showing that a majority of small and minority-owned businesses favor government action on climate change and clean energy technology.

Small Businesses Want to Get on the Clean Energy Train

What is thought to be the first survey garnering opinions about climate change and clean energy among small businesses turned up some timely and intriguing benchmarks for John Arensmeyer, founder and chief executive officer of the Small Business Majority, a research, education and advocacy organization.

“We know this is a critical area and we need to get a handle on it,” Arensmeyer told Solve Climate in an interview. “This is our first foray. We’ll take these results and start a dialog with businesses.”

The March 24-April 6 nationwide survey polled owners, managers and CEOs of 802 small business owners nationwide with 100 or fewer employees. That figure included 100 African American owners and 100 Hispanic owners.

Results showed that 61 percent agree that a move to clean energy can restart the economy and help small businesses create jobs, and that half of the small businesses support clean energy and climate legislation.

That latter number caused Arensmeyer to puzzle over why congressional legislators opposed to measures to curb heat-trapping gases consistently trot out small business owners as losing their collective shirts under any type of climate measure.

“I don’t know what statistics they are looking at because I haven’t seen any of those numbers,” he said. “I don’t think they are basing those assumptions on any hard data. That’s why we’re gathering these numbers and we’re going to keep doing so.”

His organization, he emphasized, is concerned about the “vast middle” of the small business spectrum.

“We’re not trying to influence those who are approaching this from an ideological stand,” Arensmeyer explained. “We’re after the business rationale for support or opposition. It’s about the bottom line for businesses this size.”

Most surprising to Arensmeyer were the numbers registered by members of local chambers of commerce and minority businesses. A full 60 percent of Hispanic-owned businesses and 78 percent of black-owned businesses support clean energy and climate legislation.

“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce evidently isn’t reflecting the views of at least some of its members,” he said, pointing to the 60 percent of businesses surveyed that support clean energy and climate legislation. “These people join local chambers and have a more pragmatic view.”

About two-thirds of small businesses are already taking measures to conserve energy and a majority support legislation that would provide grants, subsidies or interest-free loans for energy efficiency upgrades, according to survey results.

“They see the 21st century as being dependent on clean energy,” Arensmeyer said, “and they don’t want to miss the train.”


Recovering Economy Boosts Public Concern About Climate Change

A George Mason University/Yale University survey of 1,024 American adults showed that belief in global warming rose from 57 percent to 61 percent between January and June.

In tandem, belief that human activities are causing warming jumped from 47 percent to 50 percent. Some 53 percent of those polled said they worried about climate change while 63 percent said the issue is personally important to them.

“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,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication said via news release.

“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.”

Some 71 percent of those polled want the federal government to make clean energy a high priority and 69 percent said the United States should act to curb heat-trapping gases even if it incurs large or moderate economic costs.

Support for specific policy options polled this way, with changes since January noted in parentheses:

  • 77 percent support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant (plus 6 percent)
  • 65 percent support signing an international treaty that requires the United States to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 90 percent by 2050 (plus 4 percent)
  • 61 percent support requiring electric utilities to produce at least one-fifth of their electricity from renewables, even if the average household has to pay an extra $100 per year (plus 2 percent)

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

In Polls, Language Matters

Perhaps not so coincidentally, Krosnick was in Washington presenting his numbers the same day the U.S. Senate eventually beat back a Republican initiative to hamstring the Environmental Protection Agency’s progress toward regulating greenhouse gases via the Clean Air Act.

Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski’s resolution failed by a 53 to 47 vote. EPA’s science- and health-based endangerment finding states that greenhouse gas pollution is a danger to public health and welfare.

A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll shows broad public support for such federal government oversight. In total, 71 percent of those surveyed are behind federal regulation of greenhouse gases from power plants, vehicles and factories. Support swelled to 81 percent among Democrats and 69 percent among independents, and dipped to 55 percent among Republicans.

Krosnick didn’t quibble with the wording of that Post-ABC poll. But he did have bones to pick with the language used in national surveys commissioned by Gallup, CNN and the Pew Research Center in 2009. Wording in some of the questions, he said, violated one or both cardinal rules of good question design. The rules? Stick to a single topic per question and choose clear language.

For instance, he said, this highly publicized question in the Pew poll missed the mark: "From what you’ve read and heard, is there solid evidence that the average temperature on Earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades, or not?"

“This question measured perceptions of scientific evidence that the respondent has read or heard about, not the respondents’ personal opinions about whether the Earth has been warming,” he explained.

“Someone who has had no exposure to scientific evidence or who perceives the evidence to be equivocal may nonetheless be convinced that the Earth has been heating up by, say, the early blossoming of plants in his garden.”

His June survey employs simple and direct questions, as did a different Washington Post/ABC News survey released in November 2009, he said. Results showed 72 percent of those questioned answered that the Earth was heating up—numbers that jibe with Krosnick’s 74 percent finding.

Did Scientists’ Credibility Affect Public’s Beliefs?

The Stanford survey did not find evidence that media reports about the credibility of climate scientists affected the public’s beliefs about global warming, Krosnick said.

In this year’s Stanford survey, 71 percent of participants said they trust environmental scientists a moderate amount, a lot or completely. That compared to 68 percent in 2008 and 70 percent in 2009.

Only 9 percent said they had heard of what was dubbed “Climategate,” and believed it indicated the climate scientists could not be trusted. That supposed scandal involved e-mails hacked from the computer system at East Anglia University in Britain that were thought to show scientists colluding to silence unconvinced colleagues. Only 13 percent had the same answer about alleged flaws in the series of reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), part of the United Nations.

Global warming has attracted what Krosnick and political scientists call an “issue public,” a concept he explained in Washington and in a June 8 New York Times editorial. These are the vigilant citizens who pressure the government to follow their wishes. The global warming issue public includes about 15 percent of American adults.

Issues publics centered on abortion, immigration and gun control usually cleave right down the middle, Krosnick said. But this isn’t the case with the global warming issue public where majorities hovering close to 90 percent believe climate change has been happening, attribute it to human action and want the federal government to limit emissions.

“Put simply, the people whose votes are most powerfully shaped by this issue are sending a nearly unanimous signal to their elected representatives,” Krosnick explained.

“Global warming is a different issue. I’m fascinated with this topic. It’s a relatively new issue, and I want to keep studying it.”

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