WPO Home | A&W Home | About Americans & the World | Search | Join our ListServ | Contact Us

Global Issues >> Global Warming

Global Warming

The Reality and Urgency of Global Warming

A very strong majority of the US public embraces the idea that global warming is a real and serious problem even though only a slight majority perceives that there is a consensus in the scientific community on this question. The majority endorsing action divides on whether the problem is pressing and should include steps with significant costs or whether the problem can be dealt with more gradually through low-cost steps. However, when asked to assume that there is a scientific consensus on the reality of global warming, support for taking high cost steps increases to a majority. A majority rejects the argument that taking action is too economically onerous and is optimistic that in the long run reducing greenhouse gas emissions will actually benefit the economy by increasing efficiency. In a multilateral context support for taking action becomes overwhelming with very large majorities wanting to do as much as other developed countries to reduce emissions. Awareness of global warming is quite high.

Virtually all polls taken have found a very strong majority believes that global warming is a real problem. Only a very small minority -- less than a quarter of the public -- doubts the reality and significance of global warming. However, since the beginning of the Bush administration, the percentage showing doubts may have increased.

--In May 2005, 79% said global warming represented an “extremely important” (41%) or an “important” (38%) threat to the US in the next ten years. Only 18% said it was “not an important threat.” (German Marshall Fund) [1]

--In August 2004, Greenberg-Quinlin-Rosner found 68% saying global warming is “a very serious” (36%) or “important” (32%) problem, with another 18% saying that was a small problem. Only 10% said global warming was not a problem. These numbers are not significantly different from when the question was asked in April 2004. [2]

--In July 2004, 84% said global warming represented a “critical threat” (37%) or an “important but not critical threat” (47%) to the US in the next ten years, while only 14% said it was “not an important threat at all.” This was up slightly from 79% in June 2002. Those saying global warming is a “critical threat” was down from 46% though this was counter-balanced by a sharp upward movement among those saying “important but not critical threat” (33%). Those saying it was “not an important threat at all” was down from 18%. (CCFR) [3]

--In July 2004, when Princeton Survey Research asked how much of a priority global warming should be to the US long-range foreign policy goals, only 12% who thought global warming had “no priority,” while 82% said it had at least “some priority” (46%) or was a “top priority” (36%). [4]

-- In September 2002, 74% said they "believe the theory that increased carbon dioxide and other gases released into the atmosphere will, if unchecked, lead to global warming and an increase in average temperatures"; 19% said they did not believe this (Harris Interactive). [5]

--In March 2001, 64% said they "believe that emissions of gases like carbon dioxide are causing global temperature increases"; 23% did not (Time/CNN). In the same poll 75% thought global warming a very serious (43%) or fairly serious (32%) problem; 21% thought it a not very serious (14%) or not at all serious (7%) problem. [6]

--In an August 2000 Harris poll, 72% said they "believe[d] the theory" of global warming, while 20% said they did not--up from December 1997 when in response to the same question 67% said they believed it and 21% said they did not. In the same poll 85% thought global warming was a "very serious" (46%) or "somewhat serious" (39%) threat; only 13% said it was "not serious at all." [7]

--In a July 1999 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 11% took the position that "concern about global climate change is unwarranted." [8]

--In a September 1998 Wirthlin poll, 74% embraced the belief that "global warming is real" even when the belief was defined in terms of global warming having "catastrophic consequences," while just 22% said they did not believe in it.[9]

--An October 1997 Ohio State University survey asked about "the idea that the world's temperature may have been going up slowly over the last 100 years" and found that 77% thought "this has probably been happening," while 20% thought "it probably hasn't been happening." Likewise, 74% thought the world's average temperature would go up in the future, while 22% thought it would not. [10]

When PIPA in 2004 and 2005 offered respondents three possible positions on global warming, with one of the options being that global warming is real but does not require high cost steps, more than three quarters chose an option that endorsed the reality of global warming (see below). This is down slightly from 1998 and 2000 when more than 80% made such assessments.

The finding that most lends itself to a contrary interpretation is a September 2005 ABC/Washington Post poll that asked how convinced respondents were that global warming or the greenhouse effect is actually happening. A majority of 56% said they were either “completely convinced” (23%) or “mostly convinced” (33%). An additional 22% said they were “not so convinced” and 17% said they were not at all convinced that global warming or the greenhouse effect is actually happening. Similar results were obtained in June 2005. It is possible to combine the 22% saying “not so convinced” with the 17% saying “not at all convinced” to say that 39% are not convinced. However in light of the abundance of other evidence suggesting a much smaller number, it is more likely that those answering not so convinced were trying to characterize the level of their knowledge. Many respondents may indeed be quite uncertain about their knowledge. However, as we have seen above, and will see even more below, when asked on what basis they favor making policy, a large majority—much larger than 56%--advocate taking action on the basis that global warming is a problem that requires a significant response. [11]

A slight majority say that they worry about global warming. In a March 2004 Gallup poll 51% said that they worried "a great deal" (26%) or "a fair amount" (25%) while (47%) said they worried "only a little" (28%) or not at all (19%). This is down significantly from April 2001 when Gallup found 63% saying that they worried "a great deal" (33%) or "a fair amount" (30%) while (35%) said they worried "only a little" (22%) or not at all (13%). In a Princeton Survey Research poll taken the same month in response to the same question respondents said they worried a great deal (30%),a fair amount (29%), only a little (24%), and not at all (14%). [13]

A strong majority also agrees that the causes of global warming are related to human activities. In a June 2005 by ABC/Washington Post, 88% said that human activities, such as driving cars and burning fossil fuels are at least a minor cause of global warming. A total of 61% said it was the “single most important cause” (10%) or “one of several important causes” (51%). Only 10% said it was “not a cause.” In March 2001, Gallup asked a question that took a global temperature increase as given and then asked about its causes. Sixty-one percent said they believed "increases in the earth's temperature over the last century are due more to the effects of pollution from human activities," while a third (33%) believed the increases were due more to "natural changes in the environment that are not due to human activities." Similarly, the next month the Los Angeles Times asked the 86% of the sample who had heard or read about global warming, "What do you think is causing it?" Sixty percent thought it was "caused more by human activities, such as driving cars and burning fuel," while only 20% thought it was "caused more by natural changes in the climate" (15% volunteered "both"). [14]

The majority does not believe that the media is exaggerating the seriousness of global warming. When Gallup (March 2005) asked respondents to think "about what is said in the news," only 31% thought "the seriousness of global warming" is "generally exaggerated." Two-thirds thought the media's picture of the seriousness of global warming was either "generally correct" (29%) or "generally underestimated" (35%). This is relatively unchanged from March 2001, when 30% said exaggerated, 34% said correct and 32% said underestimated. [15]

A majority does find convincing charges from scientists that the Bush administration is downplaying environmental problems in general. Prompted by accusations of interference by the White House, in March 2004 Gallup asked “recently a group of prominent scientists charged that the Bush Administration is ignoring and distorting scientific evidence concerning the seriousness of environmental problems such as global warming. Who do you tend to believe in this matter?” A majority of 58% said they believed “the scientists who claim that the Bush administration is ignoring and distorting scientific evidence about environmental problems,” even though only 34% knew a “great deal” (8%) or a “moderate amount” (26%) about the accusations. Only 32% supported the Bush administration, which denied “ignoring and distorting scientific evidence about environmental problems.” [16]

Even when presented the challenge that the government strongly questions the need to respond to global warming only a minority are persuaded. When CBS News told respondents that the US government says that international agreements to reduce global warming “are not based on sound research and would damage the American economy” only 37% said they thought the government is right, 49% said it is wrong and 15% said they did not know (September 2003). [17]

How Fast is It Occurring?

When asked to estimate when the effects of global warming will be felt, a majority says that they are beginning to be felt now, but only a minority of Americans anticipates that global warming will have a dramatic effect in their own lifetimes. In March 2005, Gallup asked about the effects of global warming and found 69% thought "they have already begun to happen" (54%) "will start happening within a few years" (5%; Gallup) or will happen “within your lifetime” (10%), while 19% thought "they will not happen within my lifetime, but they will affect future generations" (only 9% thought that the effects of global warming "will never happen"). These findings are virtually unchanged from March 2003, March 2002 and March 2001. In May 2005 German Marshal Fund poll, 64% said it was “very” (32%) or “somewhat likely” (32%) that you would “be personally affected by the effects of global warming.” Only 34% said global warming was “not too likely” (18%) or “not likely at all” (16%) to affect them. [18]

However, when ABC/Washington Post asked in June 2004 "Do you think that global warming will pose a serious threat to you or your way of life in your lifetime?" [emphasis added], only one-third said yes, while two-thirds said no, unchanged from March 2001 (Gallup). When asked by ABC/WP whether global warming will pose a serious threat to future generations, an overwhelming 79% said yes, while only 17% said no. [19]

Perceptions of Scientific Consensus

It is striking that a large majority of Americans endorse the view that action should be taken on global warming given that many are not certain that the there is a scientific consensus on this question. In a June 2005 PIPA poll, only a slight majority of 52% thought that "there is a consensus among the great majority of scientists that global warming exists and could do "significant damage," while 39% said that scientists are divided on the existence of global warming and its impact.

Nonetheless trend line data indicate that there is a growing perception of consensus. Just a year earlier PIPA asked this same question and found only 43% saying there was a scientific consensus—a nine point increase—with 50% saying that scientists are divided. When Cambridge Reports asked this same question in 1994 just 28% perceived a scientific consensus and 58% assumed scientists were divided. The number who believed most scientists think global warming does not exist has shrunk slightly to 5% in 2005 and 4% in 2004 from 8% in 1994. [21]

At the same time, in 2001 when respondents were given only the option of choosing between saying that "most scientists believe that global warming is occurring" and that most scientists are “unsure” a majority chose the former. In a March 2001 Gallup poll, 61% said "most scientists believe that global warming is occurring" (30% think most scientists are unsure). [22]

Support for Taking Action

A variety of poll questions finds strong majority support for taking action to address global warming. As will be discussed below large majorities favor US participation in the Kyoto Treaty and support the McCain Lieberman legislation.

When respondents were simply asked in April 2005, Ipsos-Reid whether “our government needs to do something about global warming right now” a strong majority of 70% agreed (very much 42%). Only 26% said they disagreed (very much 13%). [23]

Gallup has found 75% favoring “imposing mandatory controls on carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases.” Only 22% were opposed. [24]

In a June 2004 PIPA poll, a strong 79% of all respondents said that the President should "develop a plan to reduce the emission of gases that may contribute to global warming." Only 19% said the President should not develop a plan. This was up significantly from a March 2001 Time/CNN poll in which 67% agreed and a slightly higher 26% disagreed.[25].

While a strong majority endorses the reality of global warming and the need or action, this majority is divided on the question of whether it is necessary to take urgent high-cost actions to address the problem. A large portion of those who believe there is need for action believe that a moderate response is sufficient.
In June 2005, June 2004 and November 2000, PIPA asked respondents to choose from among three statements about "what the countries of the world, including the US, should do about the problem of global warming." One statement expressed an argument frequently made by those who are skeptical about global warming: "Until we are sure that global warming is really a problem, we should not take any steps that would have economic costs." This position was endorsed by just 21% in the June 2005. Instead, an overwhelming majority—76% most recently--chose one of two statements that described global warming as a real problem requiring attention. However, this majority was divided between those who believe that the effects of global warming will be gradual and only require low cost steps and those who regard the problem as pressing and thus requiring steps with significant costs, with 42% saying that low costs steps are adequate and 34% saying that it requires steps with significant costs. [26]


In March 2003 Gallup asked a somewhat similar three-statement question on the environment in general. Only a small minority—20%—chose "we should take just the same actions we have been taking on the environment." This was up slightly from Gallup’s findings in March 2002 (14%) and March 2001 (15%) About a quarter--23%--chose the radical-sounding statement, "life on earth will continue without major environmental disruptions only if we take additional, immediate, and drastic action concerning the environment," down slightly from March 2002 (26%) and March 2001 (27%). A 56% majority preferred to say "we should take some additional actions concerning the environment," virtually unchanged from March 2002 (58%) and March 2001 (56%). [27]

The lowest level of support for taking action was found in a September 2005 Washington Post poll which asked, ““Do you think global warming is an urgent problem that requires immediate government action, or a longer-term problem that requires more study before government action is taken?” Only 41% chose the postion that global warming is an urgent problem that requires immediate government action, while 47% chose the position that “a longer-term problem that requires more study before government action is taken.” [28] However the question forced the respondent to choose between two statements consisting of two assertions one about the level of urgency and the other about the nature of the response. An assessment that the problem is “urgent” is coupled with “immediate action,” while the assessment that the problem is “longer-term” is coupled with “study before government action is taken.” Based on other responses it appears likely that the more salient assertions for respondents were likely about the level of urgency, not the response. Other polls do suggest that most Americans do not perceive the problem as “urgent,” but a majority does favor taking some action and actually rejects the notion of only doing research at this point. However it should be noted that in the current environment Americans may often be confronted by parties that are presented the kind of polarized views presented in the poll question and that in this context the public tends to divide.

Effect of Belief in Scientific Consensus

Not surprisingly, there is a strong relationship between the belief that there is a scientific consensus and the view that high-cost steps are needed. In the 2005 PIPA poll among those who believed that scientists are divided on the question global warming only 17% favored high-cost steps, as compared to 51% among those who perceive there is a consensus. Also, those who said they have heard a great deal about climate change were far more likely to favor high-cost steps (46%) than those who have heard “not much” (31%) or nothing (13%).

It appears that if more Americans assumed that there is a scientific consensus about the importance of addressing global warming support for taking high cost steps would rise to a majority. As mentioned above in in June 2005 PIPA found that while 76% favored taking some steps to address global warming only 34% favored taking steps with significant costs. PIPA also followed this question by asking respondents to assume that an overwhelming majority of scientists “have concluded that global warming is occurring and poses a significant threat,” and asked what position they would then favor. Under these circumstances, those willing to take steps with significant costs rose 22 points to 56%. At the same time those unwilling to take any steps declined from 21% to 6%. [29]

Economic Argument against Action Unpersuasive

Most Americans are not persuaded by the argument that taking action to reduce global warming will incur unacceptable economic costs. In fact a majority of Americans is inclined to believe that reducing greenhouse gasses will be economically beneficial in the long run. In a June 2005 PIPA poll Americans were asked which position was closest to theirs. Only 23% said “efforts in the United States to reduce the release of greenhouse gases will cost too much money and hurt the US economy.” Instead, 71% said that “the US economy will become more competitive because these efforts will result in more efficient energy use, saving money in the long run.” These results are relatively unchanged from June 2004 when 67% chose the efficiency of these efforts over aggregate costs (29%). [30]

This helps explain Americans resistance to taking high cost steps: most are not convinced that reducing greenhouse gasses requires high costs. When poll questions require respondents to assume that this is the case they resist taking action based on that assumption. A June 2005 poll by the Winston Group asked whether “global warming is a significant enough problem such that America should be willing to limit job growth to address it.” A slight majority of 55% said “No,” while only 35% said “Yes.” [31]

Americans have also rejected arguments against participation in global warming treaties based on economic arguments. Asked to choose between two statements in a January 1999 Zogby poll of likely voters, only 24% opted for the one that said, "The US (United States) should avoid any Global Warming treaties that put the US at a competitive disadvantage. Taking drastic steps to reduce fossil-fuel emissions could be bad for our economy and way of life." Rather, 63% opted for the strongly stated argument that "Global warming is a serious threat. We should take all necessary actions to cut down on fossil-fuel emissions and cooperate with other nations to make that happen." [32]

Asked about accepting economic costs to address environmental issues Americans will sometime express readiness to accept very high costs. In August 2005 Harris Interactive asked respondents whether they agreed with a rather extreme general statement that “protecting the environment is so important that requirements and standards cannot be too high, and continuing environmental improvements must be made regardless of cost.” A strong majority of 74% agreed with this statement while only 24% disagreed. [33] But here again some of this readiness may be rooted in optimism that the economic costs of environmental protection do not have to be severe. An overwhelming 83% said it is "possible to have both a growing economy and a healthy environment" in an April 1999 Rasmussen poll. [34]

At the same time there does appear to be a trend in the direction of giving economic growth greater priority, perhaps due to declining economic conditions or to the efforts of the Bush administration to lower the emphasis on the environment over economic growth. In January 2000, 70% said "protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth" and just 23% opted for putting a greater priority on the economy (CNN/USA Today). The percentage endorsing protection dropped to 54% in March 2002, then to 47% in March 2003 and 49% in March 2005 (with 44% endorsing greater emphasis on the economy). [35]

Multilateral Action

When taking action on global warming is placed in a multilateral context support can become overwhelming. In June 2005, shortly before the G8 Summit PIPA if, at the G8 Summit, “the leaders of these other countries are willing to act to limit the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, President Bush should or should not be willing to act to limit such gases in the US?” 86% said that he should. This large majority was quite bipartisan. Eighty-one percent of Republicans supported it as well as 89% of Democrats. [36]

Americans also overwhelmingly express a readiness to match what other countries are doing. Virtually all respondents in the 2005 PIPA poll—94%—said the US should limit its greenhouse gases at least as much as the other developed countries do on average. Nearly half—44%—thought the US should do more than average. Democrats were more willing to do more than average (53%) than Republicans (33%). [37]

Americans also tend to assume that Americans are doing as much as other developed countries. In the PIPA poll 68% assumed that the US already is doing as much (44%) or more (24%) than the average of other developed countries to limit its greenhouse gases. Only 27% assessed the US as doing less than average. Democrats were much more likely to assume that the US does less than average (40%) than were Republicans (16%), and Republicans were more likely to assume that the US is doing more than average (38% compared to 14%). [38]

Awareness High for Global Warming

Awareness of the global warming issue is relatively high. Most recently in March 2005 (Gallup), a 70% majority said understood the issue of global warming "very well" (16%) or "fairly well" (54%), while 30% felt they understood it either "not very well" (24%) or "not at all" (6%). This is unchanged from March 2001 when a 69% majority said it understood the issue of global warming "very well" (15%) or "fairly well" (54%), but is higher than in November 1997, when a CNN/USA Today poll found a 61% majority saying that it understood the issue of global warming "very well" (16%) or "fairly well" (45%). [39]

In June 2005 PIPA also asked how much people had heard about global warming, with 74% saying they had heard “a great deal” (24%) or “some” and only 24% said they have heard “not very much” (20%) or “nothing at all” (4%). This is similar to October 1998, when 71% said they had heard "a great deal" (32%) or "some" (39%) and only 29% said they had heard "not very much" (18%) or "nothing at all" (11%) about the issue. [40] In a November 1997 New York Times poll, 65% said they had heard "a lot" (27%) or "some" (38%) about global warming, while only 34% said they had heard "not much" (20%) or "nothing" (14%) about the issue. [41]


 

 

Report Contents