Climate change no longer ranks first on the list of what Americans see as the world’s biggest environmental problem, according to a new Washington Post-Stanford University poll.
Just 18 percent of those polled name it as their top environmental concern. That compares with 33 percent who said so in 2007, amid publicity about a major U.N. climate report and Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary about global warming. Today, 29 percent identify water and air pollution as the world’s most pressing environmental issue.
Still, Americans continue to see climate change as a threat, caused in part by human activity, and they think government and businesses should do more to address it. Nearly three-quarters say the Earth is warming, and just as many say they believe that temperatures will continue to rise if nothing is done, according to the poll.
The findings, along with follow-up interviews with some respondents, indicate that Washington’s decision to shelve action on climate policy means that the issue has receded — even though many people link recent dramatic weather events to global warming. And they may help explain why elected officials feel little pressure to impose curbs on greenhouse gas emissions.
“I really don’t give it a thought,” said Wendy Stewart, a 46-year-old bookkeeper in New York. Although she thinks warmer winters and summers are signs of climate change, she has noticed that political leaders don’t bring up the subject. “I’ve never heard them speak on global warming,” she said. “I’ve never heard them elaborate on it.”
Michael Joseph, 20, a student at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, said he sees extreme weather-related events such as the Colorado wildfires and the derecho storm that struck Washington on Friday as “having something to do with climate change.” But, like Stewart, he added, “I don’t really hear about it that much.”
The poll, conducted by phone between June 13 and 21, included 804 adults nationwide and has a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
Some who feel passionately about the issue say they have noticed that President Obama is no longer pushing a bill that would limit greenhouse gas emissions and allow emitters to trade pollution credits, a system known as “cap and trade.” That proposal stalled in the Senate in 2010.
“I know that he has to pick his battles,” said Margaret Foshee, 52, of Arlington County, who works in a ski shop after spending much of her career as a nurse. Describing herself as “a big Obama supporter,” Foshee said she hopes the president will do more to address climate change if he wins a second term. “If you don’t take a stand on this, we’re all doomed. . . . We’ve got to do something even if no one else’s doing it. America should be a leader on a project like this.”
Seventy-eight percent of those polled say global warming will be a serious problem if left alone, with 55 percent saying the U.S. government should do “a great deal” or “quite a bit” about it. Sixty-one percent say the same of American businesses. Just 18 percent say the government is doing enough to solve the problem; 13 percent say businesses are taking sufficient action.
While concern about warming crosses party lines, the intensity is sharply different. More than half of Democrats say it will be “very serious” if no action is taken, compared with 23 percent of Republicans and more than a third of independents.
There are also partisan differences in how respondents see the roles of government and business. About three-quarters of Democrats say both government and business should do “a great deal” or “quite a bit” to address global warming. A quarter of Republicans say government should do that much, and 36 percent say so about business.
And although climate legislation has little chance of passage on Capitol Hill right now, it continues to enjoy public support. Seventy-seven percent say the government should limit the amount of carbon dioxide that businesses can emit. It is a rare instance in which majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents agree, albeit with varying intensity.
There is a widespread belief that personal actions to help halt warming would not impose too much of an individual burden. Just 12 percent say taking such action would make their lives worse, about 43 percent say it would make their lives better, and an equal number say it wouldn’t make a difference.
Stanford University communications professor Jon Krosnick, whose team conducted the poll with The Post, said the survey shows that public support for action on climate change has remained level.
“There’s really no movement in recent years in support for the amount of government effort they want to see put into the problem,” Krosnick noted. “But clearly the salience of the issue has declined a bit, [so] the pressure the public puts on government will be less.”
Just under four in 10 polled say global warming is extremely or very important to them, the lowest percentage since 2006 and down from 52 percent in 2007. Just 10 percent say it is extremely important to them personally, down from 15 percent in 2011 and 18 percent in 2007.
“The good news is that the public understands that the global warming problem is serious, and they overwhelmingly support serious solutions. The sad news is that, with reduced mainstream-media coverage and with big polluters and their allies in the media and in Congress falsely screaming hoax, the issue is not as high a priority,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. “But record-breaking temperatures, intense droughts and wildfires, and other climate-related disasters will hopefully be a wake-up call.”
Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), a climate skeptic and the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement, “The irony, of course, is that the president who came into office promising to slow the rise of the oceans has presided over the complete collapse of the global warming movement.”
He added that environmentalists have not criticized Obama because “they’ve no doubt been assured that if he is reelected, he will have the ‘flexibility’ to institute the largest tax increase in American history through regulations because he could not do it through legislation.”
People’s knowledge about global warming has declined as well over the past five years. Today, 55 percent say they know a lot or a moderate amount about it, down from 68 percent.
While many Republican lawmakers and candidates — including the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Mitt Romney — question the connection between human activity and climate change, a majority of Americans say such a link exists. Thirty percent say climate change is caused by humans, and 47 percent say both human and natural factors contribute to it. Just 22 percent think climate change stems from natural causes alone.
Beth Abbadusky, 70, a retired office worker who lives near Moline, Ill., said she does not think humans are influencing the climate.
“I’m a Christian. I feel that we humans don’t have a lot of control over nature,” she said. “We just accept what’s going on.”
Abbadusky added that while she favors Romney over Obama, their positions on the climate “would not be a factor” in her vote. Overall, she said of politicians and global warming: “They’re not talking much about it anymore.”
Trust in scientific opinion on global warming continues to be less than robust. About a quarter of the public trusts what scientists say about the issue “completely” or “a lot,” while 35 percent, trust scientists only a little or not at all. Thirty-eight percent trust scientific opinions a moderate amount.
Part of this lack of trust could be due to how Americans see climate scientists’ motivations for their work. More than a third of them think that scientists who say climate change is real make their conclusions based on money and politics. Almost half say scientists who deny that climate change exists base their conclusions on their economic and political interests.
(Editor’s Note: This article includes comments from Stanford professor Jon Krosnick, whose team conducted the poll with The Post. The Post, which had editorial control over the polling and the reporting, was not aware that Krosnick served on the board of Climate Central, an activist organization on climate issues. Krosnick has subsequently resigned that position.)