Summary

Related Media Coverage

On June 10, 2010, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing on Americans’ views regarding energy and climate change. Some recent polls have been interpreted as suggesting that Americans are becoming increasingly skeptical about the existence and threat of climate change. Additionally, a number of surveys seem to suggest that when asked to name the issues that concern them most, Americans rank the environment and climate change far behind numerous other issues, including the economy and ongoing wars. Stanford University Professor Jon Krosnick has been conducting national surveys on global warming for more than 15 years and has monitored and interpreted changes in public perception over time on this issue. Using new survey data collected in June 2010, this briefing highlighted the results from Dr. Krosnick’s research, in which he tested a range of hypotheses about what the public believes and wants, and why some of those views have changed recently.

  • Headlines in late 2009 regarding public polling surveys led us to think that people do not understand climate change and that they doubt its reality, humans’ contribution to it, and its potential impacts. As a result, it was assumed that the public’s desire for climate change legislation had waned.
  • A sample question from surveys used in late 2009 asked: “From what you have read and heard, is there solid evidence that the temperature has risen in the last few decades?” In 2008, 71 percent said yes, but it dropped to 57 percent in 2009. This decrease prompted the gloomy 2009 headlines, but this question does not ask about people’s belief, their certainty or their concern for climate change.
  • The decline in public concern for climate change issues from 2009 to today could be explained by a series of events that began in late 2009: the “climategate” scandal (hacked University of East Anglia emails), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report “errors,” Copenhagen’s failure to produce a meaningful agreement in many people’s eyes, and the snowy winter experienced in the northeastern United States.
  • However, when Dr. Jon Krosnick attempted to see if these events and issues actually affected people’s views on climate change, he found that they did not. In fact, in using different questions from the ones typically used by Pew and Gallup, the data showed that Americans have not stopped caring about global warming, they understand it better than they did in the past, and they want the government to act now to pass climate change legislation.
  • In Dr. Krosnick’s most recent survey, conducted in June 2010, 75 percent of respondents said that human behavior was responsible for any global warming that has occurred, and 76 percent favored government limiting business’s emissions of greenhouse gases.
  • In looking at how the media has covered climate change, Dr. Krosnick did not find a significant change in number of news stories quoting global warming skeptics. In 2006, nine percent of stories quoted skeptics who said there has not been any warming. In 2007 and 2008 it was eight percent, and in 2009 it was six percent.
  • Dr. Mark Cooper’s research found that the American public has been very consistent over time in their concern about gas prices, dependence on the Middle East, and global warming.
  • When asked if we should reduce oil consumption by raising Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards to 50 miles per gallon, 55 percent said yes. Those polled would rather achieve this by raising standards versus increasing gas taxes. Americans have consistently indicated that they want information about the mileage and fuel economy of their cars.
  • The findings of both studies indicate that Americans throughout the country want politicians to act now to address climate change. Both polls were analyzed on regional levels as well, and indicated no regional variation in concern over climate change or in the belief that the government should do something.

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