To Americans, the Risks of Global Warming Are Not Imminent

by Lydia Saad

A majority worries about climate changes, but thinks problems are a decade or more away

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- One has to wonder why Americans don't demand more political action on global warming when surveys routinely find them saying they believe it is happening and are generally worried about it -- and when activists like former vice president Al Gore are sounding piercing alarm bells about the risks of climate change. Yet, only a small fraction of the public names global warming in unaided measures of perceived problems facing the nation or as a top government priority. Although a majority of Americans say they are at least fairly worried about global warming, the issue ranks near the bottom of other environmental issues rated.

One answer could be that, while Americans say they are worried about global warming, they also believe the worst manifestations of the problem are a long way off. A recent Gallup Panel poll explored this idea with a pair of questions concerning each of seven possible ways that global warming could affect life as we know it on Earth. These range from stronger hurricanes, to extinction of animal species, to a significant rise in ocean levels. Gallup asked respondents to rate how much they worry about each event happening, and to predict when, if ever, they think each event will occur.

Generally speaking, not much more than one-third of Americans are "very worried" about any of the seven effects of global warming measured in the survey; however, a solid majority are at least "somewhat worried" about nearly all of them.

The most common concern is for the worsening of weather events such as hurricanes, flooding, and droughts, as well as rising ocean levels swamping coastal areas. Americans express slightly less concern for the extinction of animal species and spread of tropical diseases. Far fewer Americans are worried that northern Europe will experience dramatic cooling due to changes in the Gulf Stream. Concern about the most severe effect of global warming -- "that human life will cease to exist on earth" -- is in a class by itself, as it is the only item for which a majority of Americans (66%) are not especially worried.

Next, as you may know there is a lot of talk these days about global warming and what its effects might be. How worried are you that each of the following will happen as a result of global warming -- very worried, somewhat worried, not too worried, or not worried at all?

2007 Feb 22-25
(sorted by "Total worried")

Very worried

Total worried

Total not worried

%

%

%

Hurricanes will become more powerful

34

69

31

Flooding and droughts will become more common

34

67

33

Ocean levels will rise, leaving many coastal lands under water

32

63

37

Tropical diseases will become more prevalent around the world

24

62

38

Animal species will become extinct

31

57

42

Northern Europe will cool dramatically due to changes in the Gulf Stream

16

50

49

Human life will cease to exist on earth

18

33

66

A Somewhat Distant Threat

The second question reveals that most Americans believe it will be a decade or more before the manifestations of global warming begin to wreak havoc.

The only outcome that close to half of Americans believe is likely to happen sooner concerns hurricanes becoming more powerful. Forty-nine percent say this is either already happening or will happen within 10 years.

In addition to hurricanes, most Americans believe three of the other seven items tested will occur as a result of global warming sometime within the next 50 years: more frequent flooding and droughts (67%), rising ocean waters covering coastal lands (59%), and spreading of tropical diseases (58%).

Americans are closely split over whether extinction of animal species and the cooling of northern Europe will happen in the next 50 years or in next 100 years or never; but the slight majority (52% for each) says 100 years or more or never.

Nearly all Americans (89%) believe human extinction won't happen for at least 100 years, including 42% who say this will "never happen" due to global warming.

Just your best guess, when do you think the earth would see -- [ITEM] due to the effects of global warming -- within the next 10 years, within the next 50 years, within the next 100 years, longer than that, or never?

Next 10 years/
now

Total next 50
years

Total
100+
years/
never

%

%

%

Hurricanes will become more powerful

49

71

28

Flooding and droughts will become more common

41

67

32

Ocean levels will rise, leaving many coastal lands under water

25

59

38

Tropical diseases will become more prevalent around the world

31

58

41

Animal species will become extinct

21

48

52

Northern Europe will cool dramatically due to changes in the Gulf Stream

18

45

52

Human life will cease to exist on earth

3

10

89

All in all, Americans don't seem to consider global warming an imminent threat to the welfare of the planet -- thus supporting the idea that while Americans may sincerely worry about the problem, it is not a burning or top-of-mind issue for them.

A Political Hot Potato

There are relatively minor differences in attitudes about these global warming issues according to the demographics of respondents. Women are slightly more likely than men to worry about all of these issues; there are no consistent differences according to age.

However, there are major differences by political persuasion. A solid majority of Democrats say they are very or somewhat worried about all seven items measured. At least half of independents worry about six of the seven items. Meanwhile, no more than 49% of Republicans are worried about any of them. As the accompanying table shows, the average level of worry among Republicans is only 34%, compared with 59% among independents and 75% with Democrats.

Worry About Global Warming Risks by Party ID
Feb. 22-25, 2007

Republicans

Independents

Democrats

%

%

%

Hurricanes will become more powerful

49

73

83

Flooding and droughts will become more common

42

72

82

Ocean levels will rise, leaving many coastal lands under water

38

63

82

Tropical diseases will become more prevalent around the world

38

68

75

Animal species will become extinct

32

60

76

Northern Europe will cool dramatically due to changes in the Gulf Stream

26

51

69

Human life will cease to exist on earth

12

29

55

Average percentage worried

34

59

75

Gallup typically sees greater concern for environmental problems from Democrats than from Republicans. Global warming may activate even greater partisan disagreement, given the Bush administration's general downplaying of the problem and the fact that Gore is the issue's most visible champion.


Survey Methods

Results for this panel study are based on telephone interviews with 1,018 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 22-25, 2007. Respondents were randomly drawn from Gallup's nationally representative household panel, which was originally recruited through random selection methods. 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 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.


Gallup http://www.gallup.com/poll/26842/americans-risks-global-warming-imminent.aspx
Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
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