Insights

Global warming caught in midst of American cultural divide

American attitudes about the environment have been surveyed for more than 20 years by a public opinion research company, Gallup Inc, headquartered in Washington, DC. In this insight, Diane Teigiser, the Institute’s Senior Advisor for External Relations in the Americas, reports on the 25 March release of Gallup’s latest findings and the implications for those working to advance the development and deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies in the United States.

The results of Gallup’s annual Environment survey, conducted March 5-8, 2015, attest to the challenges faced by those of us in the United States working on climate change issues and climate related technology. Despite the global warming issue receiving greater media and political attention lately, and strengthened support from environmental movements, Americans’ concern over environmental issues is not only down from last year, but worries about global warming in particular is now no higher than when Gallup first asked Americans about it in 1989.

Global warming at bottom of Americans’ environmental concerns

The Gallup study asked a cross section of Americans about their level of concern about various environmental problems. As in years past, the study found that Americans are more concerned about near-term threats such as pollution of drinking water, rivers, lakes and reservoirs and air pollution than about longer-term threats such as extinction of plant and animal species, the loss of tropical rain forests and global warming or climate change.

Americans more positive about the environment

Gallup also found that Americans are generally more positive about the quality of the environment than at any time over the past 25 years, which is consistent with the decline in the level of concern about specific environmental problems. Contributing factors could be attributed to:

  • Federal, state and local government actions to minimize short term or local environmental threats,
  • the lackluster health of the economy (concern about the environment tends to rise in a healthy economy and fall when the economy is ailing), and
  • the shift in the focus of the environmental agenda from near to long-term threats could be contributing factors.

Global warming highly politicized

American opinions about global warming vary widely, due in part to the extreme politicization of this environmental issue. Although concern about the environment is reported to be down since 2000 among both Democrats and Republicans, the Gallup study found that 52% of Democrats worry about global warming “a great deal”, while only 13% of Republicans do. Although Democrats tended to be more concerned about environmental issues overall than Republicans, Democrats were notably more concerned about global warming than they were in 2000.

The need for environmental protection used to be non-partisan. Teddy Roosevelt -- a Republican – established the national parks, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt – a Democrat -- established the Soil Conservation Service. This changed during the Reagan era when the Reagan administration labelled environmental protection “an economic burden”.

Majority of Americans believe global warming has already begun

When asked if the effects of global warming have already begun, 55% of Americans acknowledge that global warming is already happening. This matches the average in Gallup trends on this measure since 1997. Despite news reports of climate scientists claiming that this winter’s extreme weather is a result of global warming, 33% of Americans believe that the effects of global warming will never happen or will not happen in their lifetime. There has been no increase over time in the percentage of Americans who expect to be seriously affected.

Key Take-Aways

It is important for communicators – both in the United States and around the world - to understand and respect the opinions of the audiences they are trying to reach, and target their messages accordingly. In the United States, the public debate around climate change is not about science – it’s about values, culture and ideology. Since many Americans simply do not believe that global warming is an imminent threat, nor do they believe that global warming will pose a serious threat to them in their lifetime, the challenge for communicators is to leverage the findings from Gallup and other similar studies to develop CCS messaging that resonates with American audiences.