New U.S. Survey Indicates Majority Support for Addressing Climate Change

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Time magazineIn a new blog entry, Worldwatch Research Intern Meera Bhaskar reports on new approaches to polling public opinion that reveal "huge majorities" of U.S. residents believe in human-caused global warming and desire greater regulation to address the problem.

Over the past year, national polling data has pointed toward a growing sense of public skepticism on the credibility of climate science and the truth of global warming. According to a 2009 poll by Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the share of Americans who believe that global temperatures are rising dropped from 47 percent in 2008 to 36 percent in 2009. Additionally, a survey conducted by Gallup in 2010 found that 48 percent of Americans consider the seriousness of global warming to be exaggerated-a 12 percent increase from 1997.

Any increase in the public's ambivalence toward global warming poses yet another obstacle in the push for climate progress. However, pessimistic outlooks may need to be reevaluated in light of a new public opinion study released at a Congressional briefing last week. The hot-off-the press results from Jon Krosnick, a professor at Stanford University, pointed out inherent structural flaws in national climate and energy polls such as those conducted by Pew and Gallup, and indicated that, in fact, "huge majorities" of Americans believe that the planet is indeed warming due to anthropogenic activities. An even larger majority strongly supports government regulation to fight this problem.

Krosnick's study randomly selected 1,000 American adults to participate in phone interviews during the week of June 1, and respondents were asked a series of brief questions pertaining to climate change and energy issues. Seventy-four percent of respondents believed that Earth's temperature has likely been increasing over the past century, and 75 percent agreed that human behavior has been significantly responsible for any increase that occurred during this time.

When asked about potential government regulations for climate and energy issues, many respondents proved to be fairly knowledgeable about particular solutions and had a strong opinion as to which regulations should be promoted. Eighty-six percent of respondents said they wanted the government to place a limit on the amount of air pollution that business are allowed to emit, and 76 percent favored specific limitations on business's greenhouse gas emissions.

These figures are indicative of a large majority and show a drastic improvement from the statistics put forth by Pew and Gallup. But what makes Krosnick's polling data any more accurate than these other polls? Krosnick believes that the differences are a matter of survey design: that the surveys of Pew, Gallup, and many other opinion polls suffer from sloppy question structure, which can promote an unconscious bias and disproportionately skew the polling results.

One example is the 2010 Gallup survey, which asks: "Thinking about what is said in the news, in your view, is the seriousness of global warming generally exaggerated, generally correct, or is it generally underestimated?" Krosnick pointed out that this question asks more about respondents' perception of the news than their views on global warming; thus, a person who does believe in warming might also still believe that news coverage is exaggerated.

Stressing the need for simplicity in polling questions, Krosnick said that for scientific issues like energy and climate change, topics should be addressed one at a time in a succinct manner. He noted that studies similar to his own, which asked simple and direct questions, showed results strikingly aligned with the findings of his research. One such poll, conducted by ABC News in November, found that 72 percent of respondents believed that Earth has been warming.

Krosnick's study indicates that a significantly large majority of the American public supports the common goal of regulatory climate policies. With the U.S. Congress' mid-term elections drawing near, congressmen and women alike are scrambling to appease the majority of their constituencies. According to Krosnick, the majority results should serve as a united signal to elected representatives-and policymakers would do well to take a stand on climate and energy regulation.

Visit Worldwatch's Re-Volt blog to learn about public opinion and climate change.

This article originally appeared on the Worldwatch Institute blog Re-Volt. For permission to republish this report, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org