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Giving Global Warming the Cold Shoulder

The proposed Climate Stewardship Act, sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., would subject American businesses to mandatory limits on greenhouse gases that they dodged when President Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol two years ago. Environmental groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, are gearing up their grassroots efforts to push for the bill's passage in the Senate this spring.

While global warming is arguably the hottest issue in environmental politics today, it leaves most Americans a bit cold. Out of 10 environmental issues rated in Gallup's annual Environment/Earth Day survey*, global warming ranks ninth as a subject Americans spend time fretting over. Roughly a quarter of Americans (28%) say they worry a great deal about "the greenhouse effect or global warming." Another 30% says it troubles them a fair amount, while 40% worry about it a little or not at all.

The environmental issues that worry a majority Americans are perhaps more relevant to their daily lives, or at least more ominous-sounding: pollution of drinking water (54% worry a great deal), pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs (51%), and contamination of soil and water by toxic waste (51%). By contrast, "global warming" may sound, well, appealing. Perhaps "global meltdown" would carry more of a punch. Whatever the reason, global warming ranks only slightly higher than acid rain, but lower than the extinction of plant and animal species, on Americans' environmental worries list.

Americans Are Sympathetic to the Argument

The survey, conducted March 3-5, found no change in public attitudes about global warming over the past two years. Nevertheless, the results ought to be heartening to proponents of the McCain-Lieberman bill.

Seven in 10 Americans (69%) believe that the effects of global warming have already begun to occur or will occur in their lifetimes. Roughly one in six (17%) thinks the effects will only affect future generations. Just 10% are completely skeptical, saying that harmful effects from global warming will never happen.

Similarly, 6 in 10 (62%) believe that news reports about the seriousness of global warming are either correct or underestimate the problem. A third thinks these reports exaggerate the problem.

On an issue crucial to the political debate over solving global warming, most Americans (61%) believe the increases in the Earth's temperature over the last century result from "the effects of pollution from human activities." Only 33% ascribe the warming to "natural changes in the environment not due to human activities."

Bottom Line

Given the credence Americans put in environmentalist arguments about global warming, it seems they ought to be more concerned about it. The fact that they aren't could indicate a window of opportunity for environmental activists to convert that latent concern into popular demand for legislation such as the Climate Stewardship Act.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,003 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted March 3-5 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%.

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