How high a priority should your government place on addressing climate change?
A new World Public Opinion poll asked that question to 18,578 people in 19 countries and found a wide difference of opinion. Mexicans gave government climate action a priority of 9 out of a possible 10. Residents of China gave it an 8.86.
And the United States? U.S. residents gave it 4.71. That's below even the Palestinian Territories and Iraq, populations with serious basic human safety concerns right now.
The numbers reflect a deep divide within the U.S. population and the challenge that climate activists face as they try to harness public opinion to pressure the government to act on climate change this year.
"I think there are one or two things at work here," said Stephen Weber, chief operating officer of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, which coordinated the poll with research centers worldwide.
"One, the American public is the only public I know of where its government for quite a few years had a policy virtually of denying climate change was taking place. I think you still find more doubts in the American public about climate change than in most of the publics around the world."
Indeed, U.S. residents in the survey saw their government placing very little priority on addressing climate change, even with the Obama administration now in power and climate legislation moving though Congress. On a scale of 0-10, with 0 being not a priority at all, the U.S. average was 3.84. Only Ukraine and Iraq were lower.
People's priorities also vary by context, and in the United States, the economic crisis has become many people's top concern over the past year, pushing the relative priority of climate change lower, Weber noted.
That plays to the arguments of climate action opponents on Capitol Hill who say the U.S. should slow down on the climate change issue and not consider any major changes until after the economic crisis as passed.
"There's no question the U.S. has been behind the curve on this issue, and Congress is way behind where the public is," said Nick Berning of Friends of the Earth, noting that the poll found 52% of Americans do believe the U.S. government should do more.
"I think part of what this shows is we as a movement have to communicate better to show how climate change is linked to those other issues. Climate change is an economic issue. It's a health issue. It will become an economic catastrophe if we don't act."
The vigorous public debate between the United States' two deeply divided political parties is another influence on public opinion that is rare in many other countries. With Congress considering a cap-and-trade plan in the American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill and the EPA considering regulating greenhouse gases, climate change policy has been on the lips of politicians and pundits and appears regularly in U.S. newspapers and on the nightly news.
"Other countries don't necessarily have Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and people like Glenn Beck who go on TV every day and try to make people believe that climate change doesn't exist," Berning said. "They don't have a coordinated war on science like we see here. That's left some Americans ambivalent. It can be confusing."
How much of an influence the skeptics' message war is having would be tough to measure, Weber said, but it can certainly plant doubts, particularly when the debate turns to whether the government should take action amid an economic crisis.
Among Americans, the poll found a high negative response to whether the U.S. government should act on climate change: 42 percent gave climate change a priority of 4 or less. Among all 19 nations, only six were in the double digits in the 0-4 category.
A separate poll released this week of California residents also reflects the partisan divide and the influence of the economic downturn.
California has long been a leader in climate policy, and its residents have been largely supportive of state climate action. In a 2007 Public Policy Institute of California poll, 78% of residents said they supported AB32, the 2006 law that set greenhouse gas reduction targets requiring the state to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Last summer, support for AB32 was 73%.
Now, amid a financial crisis and with the state government unable to pay its bills and struggling with a budget deficit, that support is down to 66%.
Most residents still see global warming as a threat to their quality of life, with nearly half of them calling it a very serious threat, but they are almost evenly divided over whether the state should take action now or wait or until the economy improves. Last summer, 57% said the government should act right away; now that number is 48%.
"Californians clearly support policies to improve the environment, but in the current economic climate, their support has dropped a notch," said Mark Baldassare, CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California.
California, like the rest of the country, is also seeing more partisanship on the issues of climate change, Baldassare said.
For example, 76% of Democrats and 61% of independents in the Public Policy Institute of California survey agreed that climate change is already occurring, compared to only 36% of Republicans. In fact, 34% of Republicans said global warming would never happen, up from 24% last year.
Where they were less divided was on support for increasing renewable energy sources: 91% of Democrats and 71% of Republicans were in favor. On the question of whether the government should regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, cars and factories, 86% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans said yes.
The good news from the international poll is that it shows widespread support for more aggressive action by governments worldwide as they prepare to write a new climate treaty this December at Copenhagen, Weber said.
Attitudes across the U.S. about climate change are slowly changing, too, Weber said.
"Over the past few years, there has been, in most polling, an increased concern on the part of American public and greater belief over all that climate change is a threat that is created by man, but it's still not where it is in other countries," he said.
The international poll was conducted April 4—July 9 had a margin of error of +/-3 percentage points. The California survey involved 2,501 California residents interviewed by phone July 7-21 and had a margin of error of +/-2 percentage points.
(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)