January 24, 2007

Global Warming: A Divide on Causes and Solutions

Public Views Unchanged by Unusual Weather

Summary of Findings

President Bush’s mention in his State of the Union Message of the “serious challenge of global climate change” was directed at an American public many of whom remain lukewarm about the importance of the issue. The unusual weather affecting the nation this winter may have reinforced the widely held view that the phenomenon of rising temperatures is real (77% of Americans believe that), but the public continues to be deeply divided over both its cause and what to do about it. But there is considerably less agreement over its cause, with about half (47%) saying that human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels, is mostly to blame for the earth getting warmer.

Moreover, there are indications that most Americans do not regard global warming as a top-tier issue. In Pew’s annual list of policy priorities for the president and Congress, global warming ranked fourth-lowest of 23 items tested, with only about four-in-ten (38%) rating it a top priority. A survey last year by the Pew Global Attitudes Project showed that the public’s relatively low level of concern about global warming sets the U.S. apart from other countries. That survey found that only 19% of Americans who had heard of global warming expressed a great deal of personal concern about the issue. Among the 15 countries surveyed, only the Chinese expressed a comparably low level of concern (20%).

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Jan. 10-15 among 1,708 Americans, finds a majority (55%) saying that global warming is a problem that requires immediate government action. But the percentage of Americans expressing this view has declined a bit since August, when 61% felt global warming was a problem that required an immediate government response.

The survey finds deep differences between Republicans and Democrats — and within both political parties — over virtually every issue related to global warming. These disagreements extend even to the question of whether the earth is getting warmer. Just 54% of conservative Republicans say there is solid evidence that average temperatures have been getting warmer over the past few decades; by contrast, more than three-quarters of both moderate and liberal Republicans and independents (78% each), and even higher percentages of Democrats, believe the earth has been getting warmer.

The political divisions are still greater over the issue of whether global warming is a problem that requires immediate government action. About half of moderate and liberal Republicans (51%) express this view, compared with just 22% of conservative Republicans. The differences among Democrats are somewhat smaller; 81% of liberal Democrats, and 61% of moderate and conservative Democrats, say global warming is a problem that requires immediate government action.

Education and Party

There also are striking educational differences in partisans’ views of global warming. Among Republicans, higher education is linked to greater skepticism about global warming — fully 43% of Republicans with a college degree say that there is no evidence of global warming, compared with 24% of Republicans with less education.

But among Democrats, the pattern is the reverse. Fully 75% of Democrats with college degrees say that there is solid evidence of global warming and that it is caused by human activities. This is far higher than among Democrats with less education among whom 52% say the same. Independents, regardless of education levels, fall in between these partisan extremes.

Global Warming Not a High Priority

Roughly twice as many Democrats as Republicans say that dealing with global warming should be a top priority for the president and Congress this year (48% vs. 23%). However, the issue is a relatively low priority for members of both parties, as well as for independents.

The issue of dealing with global warming rates near the bottom of the priorities list for both Democrats and independents, and is the lowest priority for Republicans. Notably, there is much greater support, across the political spectrum, for the broader goal of protecting the environment. Two-thirds of Democrats (67%) view protecting the environment as a top priority, and it ranks near the middle of their policy priorities list. Many more independents and Republicans also rate protecting the environment an important priority than say the same about dealing with global warming.