By Juliet Eilperin and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 20, 2007
A third of Americans say global warming ranks as the world's single largest environmental problem, double the number who gave it top ranking last year, a nationwide poll shows.
In the new poll, conducted jointly by The Washington Post, ABC News and Stanford University, most of those surveyed said that climate change is real and that they want the federal government to do more about it. But the survey also shows there is little public agreement about the policies the United States should adopt to address it.
The findings come weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government has the right to regulate carbon dioxide, the largest contributor to human-caused warming. Congress is pressing to enact limits on all greenhouse-gas emissions linked to climate change, but it remains unclear how soon the House or the Senate could pass such legislation.
According to the poll, seven in 10 Americans want more federal action on global warming, and about half of those surveyed think the government should do "much more" than it is doing now.
By a 40-point margin, the public trusts congressional Democrats more than it trusts President Bush to handle global warming. More than nine in 10 Democrats in the poll said they trusted their party's leaders over Bush on the issue, as did 54 percent of independents and one in five Republicans.
Bush has maintained that he will rely on scientific developments and voluntary measures, rather than curbs on greenhouse-gas emissions, to tackle global warming.
Although many respondents say global warming is an issue that matters to them -- 52 percent say the issue is "extremely" or "very" important personally, double the percentage that said so a decade ago -- many base their views more on personal experience than on scientific findings.
Tom Sheppard, who lives in Dalton, Pa., described himself as "a typical Republican banker who doesn't have a lot of faith in the administration where this issue is concerned." He said he became concerned about climate change after seeing retreating glaciers in Alaska last year and reading about melting of the Greenland ice sheet.
However, there was no consensus among respondents about how -- or whether -- the government should regulate corporations or change the tax code to cut down on emissions.
One in five favors higher taxes on electricity to encourage conservation, and about a third support higher gasoline taxes. Sixty-two percent of those surveyed say the government should require power plants to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Forty-two percent think the government should require greater fuel efficiency for vehicles, something both the administration and Congress back, and 36 percent want to require manufacturers to produce more efficient air conditioners, refrigerators and other appliances.
Eighty-four percent think that average global temperatures have been rising over the past century, and more than half say weather has become more unstable where they live. Still, only four in 10 are "extremely" or "very" sure global warming is happening, and 56 percent continue to think there is "a lot" of disagreement among scientists about climate change.
This last finding may stem from Americans' skeptical attitudes toward scientists: A third of respondents trust what scientists say about the environment "completely" or "a lot," and a quarter say they trust such statements "a little" or "not at all."
Public doubt that there is a scientific consensus on global warming has dipped since last year, but it still contrasts with the growing evidence that climate change is real and is caused by human activity.
Charlotte Stewart, who works for a title company and lives in Terre Haute, Ind., said she believes researchers are divided because when she looks around online, "you see one person saying it's a problem, you see another person saying it's not a problem." But, Stewart added, unstable weather in her own area has convinced her that climate change is happening.
"I'm 51 years old. I don't see myself as old, but just in the short time I've been around I can see it as a problem," she said.
The latest international assessment of climate change by more than 1,200 scientists, published two weeks ago by the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, concluded with "high confidence" that human-generated emissions are triggering observable changes in ecosystems on land and sea.
Americans are also split on what causes global warming in the first place: 41 percent say the temperature rise stems mainly from human activities -- a 10-percentage-point increase from last year -- and 42 percent attribute it about equally to human and natural causes.
After global warming, respondents were most likely to raise air pollution as the "single biggest" environmental problem -- cited by 13 percent. No other concern was identified by more than 6 percent in the open-ended question.
Nearly nine in 10 said warming will be a serious problem if nothing is done to curb it, but nearly two-thirds thought that a "great deal" or a "good amount" can be done to reduce global warming's effects.
And people are not relying only on the government: Most say they would be willing to personally change some things they do in order to mitigate climate change, even if it involves some sacrifice. Nearly three-quarters said they have already made an effort to reduce energy consumption at home; seven in 10 said they already use at least one compact fluorescent light bulb, a type of bulb that uses very little electricity.
The Post-ABC News-Stanford poll was conducted by telephone April 5-10 among a random national sample of 1,002 adults. Results have a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.