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Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in January, 2010

The results of a new national survey on public responses to climate change focuses on public beliefs and attitudes and finds that public concern about global warming has dropped sharply since the fall of 2008:

  • The percentage of Americans who think global warming is happening has declined 14 points, to 57 percent.
  • The percentage of Americans who think global warming is caused mostly by human activities has dropped 10 points, to 47 percent.
  • Only 50 percent of Americans now say they are “somewhat” or “very worried” about global warming, a 13-point decrease.
 
In line with these shifting beliefs, there has been an increase in the number of Americans who think global warming will never harm people or other species in the United States or elsewhere.

The survey also found lower public trust in a variety of institutions and leaders, including scientists. For example, Americans’ trust in the mainstream news media as a reliable source of information about global warming declined by 11 percentage points, television weather reporters by 10 points and scientists by 8 points. They also distrust leaders on both sides of the political fence. Sixty-five percent distrust Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sarah Palin as sources of information, while 53 percent distrust former Democratic Vice President Al Gore and 49 percent distrust President Barack Obama.

Finally, Americans who believe that most scientists think global warming is happening decreased 13 points, to 34 percent, while 40 percent of the public now believes there is a lot of disagreement among scientists over whether global warming is happening or not.

Despite growing scientific evidence that global warming will have serious impacts worldwide, public opinion is moving in the opposite direction. Over the past year the United States has experienced rising unemployment, public frustration with Washington and a divisive health care debate, largely pushing climate change out of the news. Meanwhile, a set of emails stolen from climate scientists and used by critics to allege scientific misconduct may have contributed to an erosion of public trust in climate science.

It is also clear that public understanding of climate change fundamentals - that it is happening, is human caused, and will have serious consequences for human societies and natural ecosystems here in the United States and around the world - is heading in the wrong direction. These findings underscore the critical need for more and improved climate change education and communication.