Post-Stanford poll finds more Americans believe climate change is happening

July 13, 2012

Most Americans say they believe temperatures around the world are going up and that weather patterns have become more unstable in the past few years, according to a new poll from The Washington Post and Stanford University.

But they also see future warming as something that can be addressed, and majorities want government action across a range of policies to curb energy consumption, with more support for tax breaks than government mandates.

The findings come as the federal government released a report Tuesday suggesting the connection between last year’s severe weather and climate change. According to the study issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, changes fueled by the burning of fossil fuels made the 2011 heat wave in Texas 20 times more likely to occur compared with conditions in the 1960s.

In the report, the scientists compared the phenomenon to a baseball or cricket player’s improved performance after taking steroids.

“For any one of his home runs (sixes) during the years the player was taking steroids, you would not know for sure whether it was caused by steroids or not,” they wrote in the report, which will be published in a forthcoming Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. “But you might be able to attribute his increased number to the steroids.”


Climate poll (the washington post/the washington post - Stanford University)

The study made distinctions between November’s high temperatures in the United Kingdom — which it said were 62 times more likely because of climate change — and severe floods last year in Thailand, which it attributed more to poor land-use planning.

Americans polled by The Post and Stanford do see climate change as occurring: Six in 10 say weather patterns around the world have been more unstable in the past three years than previously, a perception that’s changed little since 2006. Nearly as many also say average temperatures were higher during the past three years than before that.

In terms of what can be done about it, about 55 percent say a “great deal” or “good amount” can be done to reduce future global warming. At the same time, 60 percent of those polled say it will be extremely or very difficult for people to stop it.

Americans are leery of broad-based tax increases to address the problem. More than 70 percent oppose policies that would rely on tax increases on electricity or gas to change individual behavior, while 66 percent favor tax breaks to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Fewer, 20 percent, want the government to stay out of regulating greenhouse gases altogether.

About two-thirds want the United States to be a world leader addressing the problem, even if other major industrial countries do not pitch in. But being a world leader doesn’t translate into direct help for poor countries that may suffer from global warming: Just 24 percent think the U.S. government should provide a great deal or a lot of help to such countries.

Americans make a clear distinction between the two main presidential candidates this year on the issue. Nearly half perceive that President Obama wants a “great deal” or “quite a bit” of government action on global warming. Far fewer — 11 percent — say the same of Republican Mitt Romney.

People don’t see a lot of downside for taking action to stop global warming. Only 12 percent say that the things people would do to help stop it would make their own lives worse.

The poll, conducted by phone June 13-21, included 804 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of 4.5 percentage points.

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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