July 12, 2006

Little Consensus on Global Warming

Partisanship Drives Opinion

Summary of Findings

Americans generally agree that the earth is getting warmer, but there is less consensus about the cause of global warming or what should be done about it. Roughly four-in-ten (41%) believe human activity such as burning fossil fuels is causing global warming, but just as many say either that warming has been caused by natural patterns in the earth’s environment (21%), or that there is no solid evidence of global warming (20%).

The public also is divided over the gravity of the problem. While 41% say global warming is a very serious problem, 33% see it as somewhat serious and roughly a quarter (24%) think it is either not too serious or not a problem at all. Consequently, the issue ranks as a relatively low public priority, well behind education, the economy, and the war in Iraq.

The divided public attitudes toward global warming – and modest expressions of concern over the issue – distinguishes the United States from other industrialized countries. Last month’s Pew Global Attitudes Project survey showed that only 19% of Americans expressed a great deal of personal concern about global warming. Among 15 countries surveyed, only the Chinese expressed a comparably low level of concern (20%).

The latest nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted June 14-19 among 1,501 U.S. adults, finds that the public opinion about global warming is deeply polarized along political lines. Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to say there is solid evidence that temperatures are rising (by a margin of 81% to 58%), and that human activity is the root cause (by 54% to 24%). Democrats also place a far higher priority on the issue – believing it is a serious problem and rating it far higher in importance among issues facing the nation. For the most part, independents see global warming in the same way as Democrats in terms of whether there is solid evidence for the phenomenon and the importance of global warming relative to other issues.

Aside from these political divisions, however, there is little difference of opinion on global warming across other demographic and social lines. Men and women hold virtually identical beliefs about the issue, as do younger and older people, and those with more and less education.

Causes of Global Warming

Seven-in-ten Americans say there is solid evidence that the earth’s average temperature is rising. A majority of those who think warming is happening attribute the changes to human activities – representing 41% of Americans overall. But many think the temperature is rising due to natural patterns in the earth’s environment (21%), or are unsure of why the earth is heating up (8%). Another 20% say there is no solid evidence of global warming.

Roughly four-in-ten say that global warming is a very serious problem, and this view is strongly linked to whether or not a person believes humans are the cause of climate change. Fully two-thirds of those who say human activity has made the earth hotter rate it as a very serious problem, compared with just 31% who see the earth warming but attribute it to natural patterns in the earth’s environment. Among those who say there is no solid evidence of global warming, most say it is either not a problem at all (36%) or not too serious of a problem (28%).

Democrats are more than twice as likely as Republicans (54% vs 24%) to say global warming is a very serious problem. But across party lines, those who say human activity such as the burning of fossil fuels has driven global warming rate the issue as far more serious.

Fully 71% of Democrats who say human activity has caused temperatures to rise rate it as a very serious problem, along with 54% of Republicans who hold the same belief. By contrast, 38% of Democrats who say temperatures are rising due to natural causes say it is a very serious problem, compared with just 22% of Republicans who believe this explanation.

Solving the Problem

Fully two-thirds of those who believe there is solid evidence of global warming think it is possible to reduce the effects of climate change – just 22% say this is not possible. And those who see human activity as the cause are the most likely to say the problem can be solved. Fully 80% of those who attribute climate change to human activity say the effects can be reduced, compared with just 48% of those who say rising temperatures are a natural pattern in the earth’s environment.

But reducing the effects of global warming will require major sacrifices, according to most who think it is possible. Overall, 39% of people who believe there is solid evidence of global warming think we will have to make major sacrifices to solve the problem, while 23% think technology can solve the problem without major sacrifices and 22% think it is not possible to reduce the effects of global warming at all.

While those who believe human activity has caused global warming are the most optimistic about the possibility of reducing the effects, they are also the most likely to believe we will have to make major sacrifices in order to do so. Roughly half (49%) of those who attribute global warming to human activities say it will take major sacrifices to reduce the effects, 26% say technology can reduce the effects more easily, and 13% say the effects of warming cannot be alleviated.

Even for Democrats, Not a Top Priority

Despite widespread agreement among survey respondents that there is solid evidence that global warming is happening, and a broad sense that its effects can be mitigated, dealing with global warming remains a relatively low priority for the American public. Asked to rate the importance of various issues, 44% rate global warming as “very important.” This is among the lowest of 19 issues tested, including top-ranked education (82% very important), the economy (80%) and health care (79%). The only issue rated as less important than global warming is gay marriage (34% very important).

Part of the low rating reflects Republican skepticism about the evidence for, and seriousness of, global warming. Just 23% of Republicans rate global warming as a very important issue, lower than any other issue tested. But even among Democrats and independents, most of whom see global warming as a serious issue, it ranks low relative to other issue priorities. Just over half of Democrats (56%) say global warming is a very important policy issue, well below such other concerns as Social Security, the job situation and raising the minimum wage. Independents, too, give more importance to the issue than do Republicans, but rate global warming well down the list of major national issues.

Bush Job Approval

Overall, the public is dissatisfied with the president’s handling of the environment and energy policy, and as Bush’s overall job approval has fallen over the past year criticism on these issues has only grown more intense. By a 51% to 32% margin more Americans disapprove than approve of the president’s handling of the environment, and disapproval outweighs approval when it comes to energy policy by more than two-to-one (56% to 26%).

Many Americans have no opinion of how the president is handling the issue of global warming specifically, but the general sentiment is more negative than positive among those who do have an opinion. A 44% plurality say they disapprove of how Bush is handling global warming, while 26% approve and 30% have no opinion.

Not surprisingly, this attitude is closely linked to views on the issue of global warming overall. People who believe global warming is being caused by human activity disapprove of the president’s performance on this issue by more than five-to-one (67% to 12%). People who believe global warming is happening but due to natural patterns in the earth’s environment are mixed in their view of the president’s performance (37% approve, 30% disapprove). People who see no solid evidence of global warming approve of the president’s handling of the issue by two-to-one (50% to 24%).