Most Americans Favor Action on Climate Change

Emissions from a coal plant. iStockPhoto
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A large majority of Americans now say global warming should be a priority for the president and Congress.

A large majority of Americans now say global warming should be a priority for the president and Congress, according to a new report by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. The report is based on a national survey conducted in early September – well before hurricane Sandy provided even more persuasive evidence that climate is changing and sea levels are rising.

General public concerns about climate change have been growing over the past few years and generally corresponds to a rise in attention the matter is getting in the media, said Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale project. That, in turn, has a lot to do with what kind of weather is making the news, he said.

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"In 2011 there were 14 weather events that cost more than $1 billion," said Leiserowitz. "They were staggering. Many Americans were beginning to connect the dots themselves."

According to the Yale report, 88 percent of Americans say the U.S. should make an effort to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs. Of that majority, 44 percent percent favor a medium-scale effort, even if it has moderate economic costs and 24 percent (one in four) support a large-scale effort even if there are large economic costs. About one in five (19 percent) support a small-scale effort, even if it has small economic costs.

These numbers are much higher than a few years ago, said Leiserowitz, because not only were fewer weather events making the news, but the economic recession pushed climate change out of the headlines and. therefore, out of many peoples' minds.

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"What's been different about this (recent) period is that we've had one (weather) event after another," Leiserowitz told Discovery News. "People are actively trying to interpret their world. They start to see a pattern."

That's a pattern noticed as well by NASA climate scientist and Real Climate blogger Gavin Schmidt.

"There is a lot of weather in concerns about climate change," said Schmidt. "(Public opinion) is very finicky and to a large extent driven by weather."

On the other hand, Schmidt is reluctant to read too much into the latest Yale numbers.

"I'm loathe to start extrapolating trends," said Schmidt. Season-to-season awareness of climate change is bound to go up and down, he said. But he does believe there is a longer term trend, over decades, towards a greater concern about climate change.

As for who should be taking the lead in doing something about global warming, the Yale study reports that nearly all Americans, 92 percent, said the president and the Congress should make developing clean energy a "very high" (31percent), "high" (38 percent), or "medium" priority (23 percent). Just eight percent said it should be a low priority.

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Among the other findings: A large majority of 77 percent of Americans now say global warming should be a "very high" (18 percent), "high" (25 percent), or "medium" priority (34 percent) for the president and Congress. About one in four (23 percent) say it should be a low priority.

The nationally representative survey, available here, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent with a confidence level of 95 percent. The study was funded by the Surdna Foundation, the 11th Hour Project, the Grantham Foundation, and the V.K. Rasmussen Foundation.

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