Climate Concern Flags Amid Support for Policies

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One possible outcome "badge" from KQED's Facebook survey, "A Matter of Degree"

Despite being far less concerned about climate change than they were a year ago, a large majority of Americans supports the the passage of federal climate and energy policies, according to a national survey released last week by researchers at Yale and George Mason Universities.  (The full survey is available as a PDF on the Yale Project on Climate Change website.)

More than 1,000 adults were surveyed in late December and early January, and their responses compared with the results of a similar survey from the fall of 2008.

Key findings include:

  • Only 50% of Americans now say they are “somewhat” or “very worried” about global warming, a 13-point decrease
  • The percentage of Americans who think global warming is happening has dropped 14 points, to 57%
  • The percentage of Americans who think global warming is caused mostly by humans activities dropped 10 points, to 47%.

These results echo a similar survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, which found that between April 2008 and October 2009, the proportion of Americans who believed there was solid evidence for global warming dropped 14 points, from 71% to 57%.

While both reports indicate a flagging of public concern about climate change in general, the Yale/GMU report finds that public support for the passage of federal climate and energy policies is strong, even across party lines. Majorities of Republicans and Democrats surveyed support renewable energy research, tax rebates for people buying fuel-efficient vehicles or solar panels, and regulating CO2 as a pollutant.

“The good news is that even though some Americans are becoming more skeptical that global warming is happening, nevertheless, there is still support for some of the basic climate policies,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change and one of the study’s principal investigators.

But the poll also revealed low levels of awareness about the policy debate in general: 60% of Americans surveyed said they’d heard “nothing at all” about cap-and-trade legislation, while just 12% said they’d heard “a lot.”  When the concept of carbon permit trading was explained to survey respondents, 58% supported the policy, but that support dropped to 40% when respondents were told that one hypothetical outcome would be to drive up household energy costs by $15 a month.  Support rebounded to 66% if a yearly household bonus of $180 were supplied to offset higher energy costs.

Bipartisan support for some climate-related policies amid fading concern about climate change, is not as contradictory as it might seem.  While some respondents approve of supporting research funding for renewable energy technologies as efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, others support this policy on national security and energy-independence grounds.  Leiserowitz noted that while support for renewable energy research has been high for years, the current public support for cap and trade could “go either way” in the near future, depending on how the public debate plays out.

Climate Watch has partnered with the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication to create our climate survey A Matter of Degree, which is available on the Climate Watch website and on Facebook.   A Matter of Degree uses data from the Yale and GMU researchers’ Global Warming’s Six Americas survey to help survey respondents determine where they fall on the spectrum of American beliefs about climate change.

  • Steve Bloom

    They took that poll right when that Arctic Oscillation-induced cold snap was happening. Could it plausibly have affected the results by that much? I suspect so. Climate polls really need to be taken at a consistent time of year, and not one that’s subject to extreme cold or heat.

  • Steve Bloom

    The Beeb’s Richard Black finds evidence (excerpt from his discussion pasted below) for a cold weather effect in a contemporaneous British poll.

    I saw no mention of such a potential weather effect in the coverage of the Yale/Mason poll. Go figure.

    Weather aside, it’s interesting that in Britain coverage of the various climate-related “-gates” seems if anything to have strengthened belief in anthropogenic climate change.

    ——————————–

    Now comes evidence from an opinion poll – commissioned by the BBC, carried out by Populus – indicating that in Britain at least, tales of increasing scepticism may be true.

    The headline stats are that between November last year and the beginning of February this year, there has been a net 9% downwards swing in the proportion of Britons believing that “the Earth’s climate is changing and global warming is taking place”.

    Having said that, three-quarters of the population still believes global warming is a real phenomenon.

    However, only one quarter believes it is a fact and that it is largely man-made – down from two-fifths last November.

    Determining the cause of this change, however, is less easy.

    More than half of respondents said they were aware of news stories about “flaws or weaknesses in climate science”.

    But in this group, 16% said they were now more convinced of the risks of climate change, against only 11% who were less convinced; so if exposure to “ClimateGate” or “GlacierGate” or other such issues has done anything, it has increased confidence in the scientific picture of greenhouse warming.

    Which perhaps leaves the weather as a key factor. Having to dig your car out of a snowbank and sending the kids out to make a snowman would, you might think, tend to mitigate against belief in warnings of a dangerously warming world ahead.

    Backing this argument, 83% of respondents said they were aware of news stories about the “coldest winter on record” (substantially more than were aware of reporting on the Copenhagen summit, incidentally).

  • Craig Miller

    I think this is a fair question to put to the pollsters, which I’ll do and let you know what they say.

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