It turns out that attempts by conservatives to discredit climate science may not have left a big dent on American public opinion after all. According to polls released this week, the vast majority of the public is still concerned about climate change, and, in the wake of the BP spill, readier than ever to ambitiously develop renewable energy.
A survey by Yale University shows that 61 percent of Americans believe global warming is real, a four-point rise since the same question was polled in January 2010. Fifty percent believe it is caused, at least in part, by human activities, a three-point increase. A Stanford University survey obtained even stronger responses—about three-quarters of those polled said they believe climate change is real and humans are wholly or partly to blame.
This is good news for anyone who was disheartened by a Pew survey last fall that suggested public concern over global warming had dropped—for instance, 65 percent believed it was a serious problem; down from 73 percent in spring 2008. Stanford professor Jon Krosnick, quoted in USA Today, says, “Several national surveys released during the last eight months have been interpreted as showing that fewer and fewer Americans believe that climate change is real, human-caused, and threatening to people … But our new survey shows just the opposite."
To me, the news is also a reminder of the highly variable nature of polls. Polls sometimes have significant margins of error. They are useful snapshots of the American psyche at a given moment, but I often wonder at the press when it claims to reach some startling conclusion about what Americans must think based on their responses to a rapid-fire and sometimes unwelcome phone call from a research institution.
Whether public concern has gone up or down by a small margin seems to me like a red herring. When half to three-quarters of Americans can acknowledge that climate change is a problem, it’s certainly no fringe issue. And a majority of the public supports action: For instance, the Stanford poll reveals that 84 percent of Americans favor tax breaks to encourage companies to produce more power from solar, wind, and hydro. As Obama considers whose ass to kick over the Gulf spill, I wonder how much more of a mandate he needs to pursue a climate bill and an ambitious energy policy.
Of course, the politics of the Senate are not, unfortunately, driven by majority public opinion. All the more reason why, as our executive editor, Sarah van Gelder, writes, we need people power to make Obama take action.