The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing discussing American perceptions of climate change. This briefing provided a broad review of survey evidence and explained what may lie behind variations in public attitudes toward climate change. Professor Jon Krosnick highlighted the results of a meta-analysis of public opinion polls on climate change conducted over the last 20 years. He presented the results of new surveys documenting change over time in public beliefs, and the causes of those trends.

In addition, the briefing included a state-by-state breakdown of public opinion, an analysis of the impact of global warming on voting in the 2012 elections as well as the impact of Superstorm Sandy on the public's perception of climate change. Finally, Dr. Krosnick assessed the extent of public support for government action aimed at mitigating and adapting to climate change.

  • Eleanor Bastian from the Office of Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) opened the event. She noted that climate change is an important issue, as exemplified by two severe natural resource challenges currently facing Colorado: pine bark beetle infestations and wildfires. She suggested that now is a good time to think about the effects of climate change on the United States.
  • Stanford Professor Jon Krosnick covered six major issues in his discussion:
  • Dr. Krosnick has conducted annual surveys since 1997, asking respondents if they believe the Earth is warming. The data has remained steady over time, with the most recent survey showing 78 percent of Americans believe global warming is happening. 
  • Dr. Krosnick also discussed a report from the social research group The Strategy Team, which reviewed 150 surveys from over the past 30 years. Across the surveys, respondents’ belief in climate change ranged from 45 to 90 percent, with the average around 70 percent.
  • The Strategy Team found that survey question wording was the most significant factor in how high or low the reported belief was.
  • An analysis of Dr. Krosnick's annual surveys found that in every state for which he had sufficient data (all but three), the majority of respondents agreed that global warming is happening.
  • Even in the states with the most skeptics, 65 percent of respondents still agreed that global warming is occurring. In most states, the percentage of the population believing in the existence of climate change was in the 70s, and in Oklahoma it was 85 percent.
  • However, many Americans are unaware that such a significant portion of the nation believes in global warming. Dr. Krosnick’s most recent survey indicates that 78 percent of Americans believe in global warming, yet when respondents were asked to estimate the percentage of the population that believes in global warming, they answered an average of only 56 percent – a 22 percentage point difference between reality and perception.
  • Dr. Krosnick noted that if the general public perceives the issue as being nearly evenly split, it is likely that legislators believe the same.
  • Also of note for legislators, Dr. Krosnick discussed his research on the voting behavior of Americans who support government action on climate change. He found that for the most recent presidential election, respondents who wanted government action on climate change were more likely to vote for Barack Obama and less likely to vote for Mitt Romney.
  • These pro-environment respondents were also more likely to vote than most Americans, and there was not a similarly sized, anti-environment action voting bloc.
  • Finally, Dr. Krosnick presented new data he had gathered on the effect of Superstorm Sandy on perceptions of global warming. His research team was undertaking a survey when the storm hit: 2,070 people were interviewed just before Sandy, and 2,891 people right after the storm. The study found there was no statistically significant change between the two groups when asked about their belief in global warming and whether government action on climate change is needed.

This briefing was covered by C-SPAN -- their recording can be found here.

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