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Global warming: Do Americans care?

March 16, 2009 |  5:54 pm

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The Gallup poll has been asking Americans what they think about global warming for more than a decade. Is public concern increasing? One might think so, given the past year’s tsunami of scary climate science and the push to laws to control planet-heating greenhouse gases.

Not so, according to a survey of 1,021 adults questioned March 5 to 8.

Sixty percent of all those queried — down from 66% last year — say global warming is a problem they personally worried about either “a great deal” or “a fair amount.”

And a record high, 41% of those interviewed, believed the media “generally exaggerates” the seriousness of global warming. That was up from 35% last year, and only 30% in 2006.

Does the skepticism flow from the nation’s new economic gloom? If so, other environmental issues would presumably suffer equal drops. But the 2009 survey measured concern about eight specific environmental issues. “Not only does global warming rank last on the basis of the total percentage concerned either ‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’, but it is the only issue for which public concern dropped significantly in the past year,” Gallup said. Concern over water pollution, toxics and rainforests, among other issues, remained stable.

What’s to make of this?

Because California has adopted the nation’s most sweeping plan to control greenhouse gases, we asked several of the state’s global warming experts to respond.

STATE SEN. FRAN PAVLEY (D-Agoura Hills), author of global warming legislation
    “The results of the poll were somewhat surprising," she said, suggesting that those who are less concerned may associate global warming with "the melting Arctic and the plight of the polar bear," rather than with climate-induced effects of "reduced water supply, salt water intrusion into aquifers, increased drought and wildfires, or the clear link of greenhouse gases and increased air pollution."
    Global warming, she said, will lead to "extreme heat events.... In 2005, 140 people died in California during several weeks of high temperatures, primarily residents of inland valleys and lower income areas that may not have had air conditioning. Research shows that hotter temperatures lead to increased smog and ozone levels."

TERRY TAMMINEN, Environmental advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger

    "I think people’s bandwidth is a zero sum game -- if you’re increasingly concerned about something (your job, the economy overall, your mortgage -- all of which you previously didn’t think about at all), you have less sympathy to take other things quite as seriously.
    "More to the point, climate change is now ingrained in people’s minds -- ads on TV now talk about ways to reduce your carbon footprint without having to explain what that is, something that was not true just a year ago.
      "This is part of a long process -- like Goldilocks, we went from not caring enough, to perhaps caring too much, to 'just right' in the near future, but I have faith we’re on the right path!
      "As for the numbers, Churchill said it best -- there are lies, damn lies, and statistics!"


MARY D. NICHOLS, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, which is implementing the state's climate plan.
     “The scientific evidence of change is widespread,  but building slowly, over years -- not days or weeks. That kind of change is hard for most people to see or believe in.
      Some of the global warming deniers or skeptics who have been forced to accept the reality of change are still fighting against doing anything about it, blaming scientists for exaggerating the seriousness of the problem and claiming any proposals to cut emissions will be too costly.
      But most people understand that the measures needed to reduce the threat are good for our economy and reduce our dangerous dependence on imported oil."

ANN NOTTHOFF, California advocacy director, Natural Resources Defense Council
     "Over the past three years –- from 'An Inconvenient Truth' to the Nobel Peace Prize to the Supreme Court CO2 decision to the presidential campaign, and now to the Obama administration and congressional leadership -- the concern about global warming has gone from alarm to practical solutions. That’s good news. Americans don’t spend time 'worrying' about a problem, they start thinking about how to do something about it.
       People want clean air to breathe, safe water to drink and a safe environment. The science linking their daily health and global warming is increasingly strong.
This poll seems to measure reactions to media coverage rather than to the consequences of global warming.... [It] finds that solid majorities of the American public know that global warming is a real threat and problems are already manifest. Young people, looking to their future, are particularly concerned. That’s a strong public message to Congress to act now."

DOROTHY ROTHROCK, vice-president of the California Manufacturers and Technology Assn.

   "I will pass on this..."

--Margot Roosevelt

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