Popular Perceptions of Global Warming

I recently attended a briefing on public attitudes toward climate change by Resources for the Future and Professor Jon Krosnick of Stanford University. Dr. Krosnick's presentation, available here, released the latest results of his Political Philosophy Research Group's annual poll on public perceptions of climate change and environmental issues in general. The poll, run most years since 1997 and with only minor changes in question wording, generally shows consistent results; statistically significant variation through the poll’s entire run is negligible.


Here are a few, selected numbers that stood out to me, with my thoughts.


  • “Is the planet warming?” 73% said yes. Krosnick says this may seem low, but in political polling, it is an overwhelming majority. To me it seemed lower than it should be, but it is still significant enough to raise questions about why practically no proactive solutions are underway on a federal level.

  • “Should the federal government do more to stop global warming?” 66% said yes. “Should government limit greenhouse gas emissions from businesses?” 81% said yes. When asked specifically if government should limit power plant emissions, encourage more efficient cars and buildings, and encourage consumer solar power subsidies, the numbers ranged from 68% support to 80% support. Dr Krosnick notes that with a random survey of the nation, it is simply not possible to get numbers this high without representing a broad consensus of Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike. All of these are easily high enough support to win elections and end any filibuster. Draw your own conclusions about how well the United States government represents the people's will. Not convinced? Here's a few more...

  • “Would you support government efforts to reduce business' CO2 emissions even if it costs additional tax dollars?” 75% of the 80% said yes (60% of the country, a supermajority), and an identical number supported tax breaks for renewable energy generation, both by utilities and individuals. Dr Krosnick’s numbers showed that taxpayers would be willing to pick up enough of the tab to decrease

  • “Do you support cap-and-trade?” 59% said yes. A different system, Cap-and-Dividend (in which the sale of CO2 credits by the government funds tax breaks for the middle and lower classes), received 65% support.

  • “Should the United States act unilaterally against global warming even if other countries don't join us?” 75% said yes. This was a favorite of mine, as one of the worst tired, old arguments against government action is that other countries would not join us and it wouldn't make a difference. Dr. Krosnick pointed out that his research finds other countries are taking more action at the national level than the US anyway-- yes, even China (although their government openly states it would take climate action, their commitment is questionable.)

  • “Is global warming a serious national or world issue?” 83% said yes. Okay, this makes sense. But...

  • “Will global warming hurt you personally?” only 60% said yes. “Will global warming affect future generations?” 80% said yes. To me, this difference represents something very important about our psychology. Global warming is the “creeping thing”, and this type of danger is hard for our minds to handle appropriately. Our fear instincts are best able to process extreme stimuli such as loud noises, fires, and predatory animals. We are more worried of a “flashy” danger with a low probability than a “mundane” threat with a higher probability-- how much more scared are people to fly in airplanes-- the safest method of travel-- than to drive a car, which kills tens of thousands a year? If global warming caused large explosions, we would act ferociously to stop it. Instead, unfortunately carbon dioxide is invisible, and the effects of its excess are wide-ranging, scattered around the world, and delayed for long after its emission.


But the numbers Dr. Krosnick presented gave me hope. His personal conclusion was that the popular notion that the people of the United States are “behind the times” on the environment is blown out of the water by these facts. Instead, Dr Krosnick said that its about time government “catch up to the people” and start working on all of the actions that huge majorities of them would like to see. He says that the tax cost questions show that the main motivator of the public's opinions is not economic interest, but rather their perception of global warming's threat to them.

http://www.eesi.org/012814polling [available here]




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