The latest public opinion survey on global warming is in, and the results show a slight rebound compared to last year in public support for evidence indicating that the globe is warming, and steady support for the scientific view that human activities have something to do with this warming. Produced by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University, this “Climate Change in the American Mind” survey probes deeper than most other public opinion research into where the gaps of climate science awareness and understanding can be found, and helps reveal recent trends in public opinion.
The poll shows that, when asked to assume that global temperatures are rising, most Americans say they view human activities as either the primary cause or a contributor to this trend. However, the poll reveals that most Americans don’t see the problem as one that is very likely to harm them, their family, or their community. Rather, they see it more as an issue of concern at the national and international level, with the greatest impacts likely to affect those living in developing countries. Furthermore, a surprisingly large percentage of people continue to believe the falsehood that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists that the earth is warming in the first place.
The poll showed that 40 percent of respondents said the statement “There is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening” comes closer to their view of global warming. This is befuddling, since every study that has sought to quantify the so-called “scientific consensus” on global warming, either by polling climate scientists or examining peer reviewed scientific publications, has reached the conclusion that there is very little disagreement among scientists that the earth is warming and human activities are, at least in part, to blame for it. Even most skeptic scientists have conceded the “planet is/isn’t warming” argument, and now focus on what they say are indications that warming and its consequences won’t be very significant or harmful.
It’s important to note that for that question, and many others in this poll, researchers defined global warming in a way that avoids the issue of whether human activities or natural factors are causing temperatures to rise.
In a related question, just 13 percent of the 1,010 adults surveyed in the poll answered the following question correctly: “To the best of your knowledge, what proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is happening.” The correct answer was the response, “82 to 100 percent.”
In addition to the continued confusion over the level of scientific agreement, the latest poll - consistent with prior surveys - again found that most Americans are “somewhat worried to very worried” about global warming, but that they have not made connections between the global and local levels. For example, 49 percent of respondents said they think global warming will “harm” their family “only a little” or “not at all,” compared to 34 percent who think it will harm their family by a moderate amount or greater. Perhaps it’s just human nature to think about large-scale, potentially existential issues in an abstract way, as something that will never really “happen to me.” But I think it also reflects a lack of media coverage of climate change impacts at the local level.
The latest edition of the survey also added several new questions that provide insight into how Americans are connecting the dots between extreme weather events and climate change. These questions show that more people think global warming is already aggravating coastline erosion and flooding, as well as hurricanes, compared to river flooding, wildfires, and forest damage from pine-bark beetles.
That’s puzzling, since there is solid scientific evidence in support of each of the latter extremes, and somewhat conflicting evidence for how climate change is affecting hurricanes. For more info on climate impacts in the U.S., I suggest reading the 2009 report, “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.”
The survey results also show that the record snowstorms in the eastern U.S. last winter caused many people - 47 percent of respondents - to “question whether global warming is occurring.” That’s about the same percentage as indicated by the June 2010 survey, concerning the winter of 2009-10. However, more people - 54 percent - had their belief in global warming strengthened by summer heat waves last summer (this question was not included in the 2010 survey).
Another indication of the long road ahead for anyone hoping to galvanize public support for taking action to prevent the most severe consequences of climate change is the finding that the majority of respondents - 54 percent - had thought about global warming “a little” or “none at all,” compared to just 45 percent who said they had thought about the topic ”a lot” or “some.” This offers another sign that the public remains aware of, but generally disengaged on this issue.
Lastly, the poll gives one more reason for TV weathercasters to be concerned about their job security. It shows a noteworthy decline in levels of trust for TV weathercasters, from 60 percent in November 2008 to 47 percent last month.
Overall, the poll indicates that public support for, concern about, and general interest in global warming is still down relative to November 2008. At that time, high profile international climate treaty talks in Copenhagen were approaching, and a scandal that raised questions regarding the credibility of climate science studies had not yet hit front pages.