Latest Climate Polls: More Knowledge but Urgency Lags

Leading up to international treaty talks, four new polls aim to take the world's temperature on climate change.

An Adelie penguin stands atop a block of melting ice in East Antarctica. A recent Pew poll shows partisan differences on climate change in the U.S. Credit: REUTERS/Pauline Askin

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As the final weeks tick down to international climate treaty talks in Paris, social scientists are releasing a bevy of new data demonstrating the breadth and diversity of support for action on global warming.

Four new climate polls were released last week alone. They looked at global warming opinions in 40 countries, the impact of Pope Francis’ recent climate campaign and Americans’—and in one case, specifically African-Americans’—views on climate change, the Clean Power Plan and global treaty talks.

Overall, the polls show a growing awareness of climate change as a serious problem, but a sense of urgency has not necessarily followed, particularly in the United States. Here are the main takeaways from each of last week’s major climate polls:

Widespread International Support

Based on interviews with more than 45,000 people in 40 countries, scientists at the Pew Research Center found that 54 percent considers global warming a “very serious” problem, and 78 percent support cutting greenhouse gas emissions as part of an international treaty.

The more carbon dioxide a country has emitted, however, the lower that support level seems to be. In the United States and China—two of the world’s largest contributors to climate change—only 45 percent and 18 percent of the population, respectively, think of climate change as a very serious problem. Even so, 69 percent of Americans and 71 percent of Chinese support a Paris climate agreement.

The poll also found that climate change remains a deeply partisan issue in the U.S., with 20 percent of Republicans, 41 percent of Independents and 68 percent of Democrats categorizing climate change a “very serious” issue.

The Pope Francis Effect

Seventeen percent of Americans and 35 percent of Catholics told pollsters at George Mason University and Yale University that Pope Francis’ position on global warming has influenced their own views on the issue.

The study interviewed more than 900 Americans this spring before Pope Francis released his nearly 200-page encyclical on climate change, and this fall after the religious leader’s visit to Congress and the United Nations, where he called for swift and aggressive carbon cuts.  

The percent of American Catholics who said that global warming is happening jumped 10 percentage points—from 64 percent in March to 74 percent in October—after Pope Francis’ climate campaign. For Americans in general, that number jumped from 62 percent to 66 percent over the same time period.

African-Americans Support Climate Action

A poll of 800 African-Americans found that 60 percent view global warming as one of the most serious issues facing the nation, ranking behind crime, economic issues and education. More than two-thirds of African-Americans said the U.S. and other world leaders should take action to reduce the threat of climate change, and 83 percent supported the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s strategy to reduce carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants.

The poll was organized by the environmental justice group Green For All and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

So What?

Two out of three Americans believe that global warming is happening, and a majority accept that human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels are driving it. Most Americans, however, still aren’t actually that worried about climate change. One-third of the 1,058 people polled said they are only moderately concerned about the impacts of global warming, while 38 percent said they were not too worried or not worried at all.

The survey, which was conducted by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago, also found that regardless of Pope Francis’ recent climate campaign, only 36 percent of Americans think global warming is a moral issue.