How Americans see global warming — in 8 charts

April 22, 2013

Earth Day organizers have dedicated the celebration's 43rd anniversary to highlighting the impact of climate change. Even though President Obama made mention of the issue in his second inaugural address and his 2013 State of the Union speech, climate change has a long way to go to be a top-of-the-mind issue in the U.S. even as most Americans broadly acknowledge the existence of global warming and support laws aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.

Here are eight charts that explain where the public stands on climate change.

1. No imminent threat. Over six in 10 people in a March Gallup poll said they don't think global warming will seriously threaten them during their lifetimes. One-third do see a threat, a number that rose to a high of 40 percent in 2008, but has ticked down since.

2. Not a top priority. The dearth of immediate concern regarding climate change helps explain the relatively low importance Americans place on trying to solve the problem. Just 18 percent of Americans said addressing global warming was the "highest" priority for President Obama and Congress in a January Washington Post-ABC News poll, the lowest of eight priorities tested in the survey.

2013-04-22 priorities
Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted Jan. 10-13, 2013 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults.

3. Belief in global warming has been on the rise. Despite skepticism about its near-term impacts, support for the existence of the idea that the world is getting warmer has rebounded in recent years, according to Pew Research Center polls.

2013-04-22 Pew global warming trend

4. Views today are more partisan than they once were.

5. The Earth may be warming but the why remains a point of contention. Scientists overwhelmingly say global warming is happening and that it's caused mostly by human activity, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey. But the general public is less sure on both ideas: In the latest data, about seven in 10 believe it's happening (69 percent), and 42 percent say it's mostly because of humans.

2013-04-22 Scientists vs public
2009 Pew Research Center surveys of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and general public.

7. Trust in climate scientists is not universal, and has dropped in recent years. Just 26 percent of Americans said they trust scientists "completely" or "a lot" in a 2012 Washington Post-Stanford University poll, down from 32 percent in 2007. More, 35 percent, said they trust scientists only "a little" or "not at all." In a striking finding, more than one-third of the public believed climate scientists who say global warming is real make their conclusions based on money and politics.

2013-04-22 Global warming trust
Washington Post-Stanford University poll conducted June 13-21, 2012 among 804 adults.

8. Regulating greenhouse gases is popular across party lines. Beyond priorities and doubts of an imminent impact, big majorities across party lines said the government should regulate greenhouse gases in a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll last year. A separate Post-Stanford University poll found the public split about evenly on whether they preferred requiring greenhouse gas regulations by law (41 percent) or through tax breaks that encourage lower emissions.

Clement is a pollster with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.

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