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As The Economy Continues to Struggle, New Survey Reveals Continued Stability in Public Views about Global Warming

Colleagues Tony Leiserowitz and Ed Maibach have released their latest survey report in the Global Warming Six Americas series. Below is the email summary from Tony describing the results from the May 2011 survey showing that public opinion and perceptions have held relatively stable since 2010 with any shifts minor in comparison to those that occurred between 2007/2008 and 2010.

The continued stability in public views about climate change are consistent with the analysis featured in the Climate Shift report (see Chapter 4). Often overlooked is that the historic spike in public concern and belief in climate change that occurred in 2007/2008 came at a very unique time economically and politically, with the country experiencing the lowest levels of unemployment for the past decade and the political mood of the country shifting left-of-center.

The most parsimonious and likely explanations for the decline in concern and belief between 2008 and 2010 are the major downturn in the economy and the shift in political mood to a right-of-center outlook. This is added to by the simple loss in top-of-mind salience and availability of information on the topic due to the downturn in news attention to the issue, reflecting the agenda-setting influence of the media.

In comparison to these factors and trends shaping wider public opinion, past research suggests that the influence of conservative media/commentators and Climategate on wider public opinion is likely to be limited, reinforcing the views of the 20% or less of the public already strongly dismissive of climate change and holding a strong conservative political identity.

As the economy continues to struggle and with the country locked in a right-of-center outlook with a heavy focus on budgetary politics, public views on climate change are likely to remain relatively stable over the coming year. Notably, experts do not predict a return to 2006/2007 unemployment levels until at least 2015 suggesting that a return to the levels of public concern and belief featured during these years is unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Read more on what this suggests for communication and public engagement.

Here is the description of the latest Global Warming Six Americas results from an email release by Leiserowitz.

Dear Friends,

Today we are releasing the first of four reports from our latest national survey on Americans’ climate change and energy beliefs, attitudes, policy support, and behavior.

In this report: Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in May 2011, we find that since June 2010, a number of important beliefs and attitudes have shifted slightly up or down, depending on the measure.

Since June 2010, public understanding that global warming is happening rose three points, to 64 percent, while belief that it is caused mostly by human activities declined three points, to 47 percent. The number of Americans who worry about global warming held stable at 52 percent, while the number of Americans who said that the issue is personally important to them dropped three points, to 60 percent.

Since June 2010, public understanding that most scientists think global warming is happening rose 5 points, to 39 percent, while 40 percent of Americans continue to believe there is a lot of disagreement among scientists.

For the first time, we asked Americans to estimate what proportion of climate scientists think global warming is happening. Only 13 percent get the correct answer (81 to 100%), while 31 percent say they don’t know. Likewise, only 15 percent correctly understand that the great majority of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities, while 32 percent say they don’t know.

Nonetheless, roughly half of all Americans say that global warming is already causing or making the following events worse in the United States: coastline erosion and flooding (52%); droughts (50%); hurricanes (49%); rivers flooding (48%); and wildfires (45%).

Perhaps reflecting major declines in media reporting, global warming has also dropped in public consciousness. Only 45 percent of Americans say they have thought some (33%) or a lot (12%) about global warming, a drop of 10 points since June 2010. At the same time, 52 percent Americans say they would like more information about global warming – an increase of 5 points since June 2010.

Levels of trust in television weather reporters, the mainstream news media, and scientists as sources of information about global warming have also dropped since June 2010 (by 9, 7, and 5 points respectively).

Overall levels of trust remain high, however, for scientists (76%) and for federal agencies that deal with climate change, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (76%); the National Park Service (73%); the Center for Disease Control (69%); the Environmental Protection Agency (62%); and the Department of Energy (59%). President Obama is trusted as a source of information on global warming by 46 percent of Americans, while only 36 percent trust their own U.S. Congressman/Congresswoman.

These upward and downward shifts in public beliefs and attitudes are relatively small, compared to the larger declines that occurred between the fall of 2008 and January 2010. Public understanding of climate change – and public engagement in the issue – remains lower than it was in 2008.

The report can be downloaded here: Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in May 2011

I’ll be back in touch next week with a report on changes in Americans’ support for climate and energy policies, followed by updates on their behaviors, and Global Warming’s Six Americas.

As always, thanks for your support and interest in our work.

See Also:

Nisbet, M.C. & Myers, T. (2007). Twentyyears of public opinion about global warming. Public Opinion Quarterly, 71(3), 444-470.

Nisbet, M.C. (2011). Public Opinion and Political Participation.  In D. Schlosberg, J. Dryzek, & R. Norgaard (Eds.).Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society. London, UK: Oxford University Press. [Description]


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