Americans Want Government Action on Climate, As Long As It Doesn't Directly Affect Them

Brookings Institution has again taken the temperature of the American people, their attitudes and beliefs about climate change, as well as about different policy options to address the situation.

Perhaps the most striking thing is how belief in the basic observed facts of temperature rise have climbed back to levels not seen since the fall of 2009. As of Spring 2012, 65% of people surveyed said there was "solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past four decades." While continuing a consistent rise in recent months, that percentage stills trails Fall 2008, when 72% of Americans correctly thought temperatures were rising.

The biggest change in these beliefs, broken down on political lines, comes as a rise in belief from self-identified Independents. Just 55% of this group thought warming was occurring in Fall 2011, climbing to 72% in Spring 2012. For comparison, 81% of Democrats and 42% of Republicans share this view.

Also noteworthy is that confidence in belief that warming is happening is sharply climbing as well. In Spring 2012, 63% of people who said they believed warming was happening said they were "very confident" that this was the case (up from 49% six months ago), with the amount of people being "fairly confident" falling from 44% to 32%.

As for what's influencing people's beliefs, this latest poll follows what other recent polls have shown. When it comes to getting people to believe that the climate around them is changing, that warming is occurring, media coverage and scientific papers don't matter much. Rather, personal observation of warmer temperatures and changing weather do, with 21% of people saying observed warmer temperatures was the biggest factor in their beliefs and 20% saying observed weather changes were the biggest factor.

Scientific research was cited as the biggest factor by 14% of people two years ago, roughly tied with observed changes in temperature and weather, but now has dropped to 11%. Media coverage slightly edged out scientific research in 2010, but now has been cut pretty much in half, dropping to being the most important factor for just 9% of people.

Looking at milder winters specifically (remember that this year has been the warmest on record in the US so far), 69% of people, combined, said this past winter had a "very large" or "somewhat large" effect on their beliefs about warming.

As for what to do about climate change at the Federal policy level opinions largely break upon political party affiliation, with (no big surprise to anyone even partly following these issues) Democrats supporting stronger government policy far more than Republicans. The exception being increasing gas taxes, which no one likes.

More specifically:

  • Increasing taxes on fossil fuels as a whole: 33% "strongly" or "somewhat support" doing so; 61% oppose doing so strongly or somewhat.
  • On gasoline specifically, 22% strongly or somewhat support this, with 75% opposed (including strong opposition from 45% of Democrats). Apparently oil addiction knows know political boundaries, as does knowledge that plenty of places have far higher gasoline taxes that the US and get along just fine or better with these.
  • Cap and trade pulls Americans all over the place, with 35% supporting, 42% opposing, and 22% being not sure—the highest percentage of people being unsure of their support or opposition of any question Brookings asked.
  • Conversely to these policy options, support for a national renewable portfolio standard is high, with 77% of people supporting this (most strongly supporting it), and just 19% opposing.
  • Federal regulation of greenhouse gases shows strong support, if less than an RPS: 59% supporting "federal regulations than limit emissions from major industrial sources" and 31% opposing.

One, perhaps slightly cynical, take away from these results is that Americans support action on reducing climate pollution when doing so constrains the actions of others (reducing emissions from large industrial sources, making utilities generate a certain amount of electricity from clean sources), but when it comes to taking actions that will directly affect them (increasing taxes on fossil fuels, and even more so gasoline) they are strongly opposed. This actually fits very well with the results of the previous survey on attitudes about warming itself. Personal experience here is the deciding factor in influencing belief.

It comes back to the individual in both cases. In terms of climate action, take it but not if it directly affects me. In terms of climate belief, believe what you personally observe, not what other people who professionally study the subject (and by discipline are often prone to understatement, it should be noted) say is happening.

Americans Want Government Action on Climate, As Long As It Doesn't Directly Affect Them
Brookings has two new surveys out on American attitudes about climate change, as well as what to do about it. The good news is that more people correctly think things are getting warmer.

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