A new AP-GfK poll recently found that 78 percent of Americans believe the earth’s temperatures are rising. Even among the third of Americans who are skeptical of scientists, 61 percent say global temperatures have been rising over the past 100 years. This percentage is up significantly since 2009 when less than half (47 percent) of these scientist-skeptics agreed. However, it remains to be seen whether this is a permanent change in public opinion, or an ephemeral reaction to particular events such as Hurricane Sandy. For instance, after Hurricane Katrina, 85 percent of Americans thought temperatures were rising, while that number stands at 78 percent today. Nevertheless the median voter is likely becoming persuaded that climate change is in fact occurring.
Opinion of government handling of climate change is nuanced. For instance, 57 percent think the US government should do a “great deal” about global warming. A quarter of Americans think government efforts to curb global warming would hurt the economy while 46 percent think government action would help the economy. However, when polls provide specific and tangible consequences of government action, Americans resist. For instance, a Pew Research Center poll from April 2012 found that 74 percent of Americans thought “there needs to be stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment.” But then immediately after when asked if Americans should be willing to pay higher prices in order to protect the environment, 53 percent immediately disagreed.
Americans care about the planet’s health, and they want clean air, water and soil. However, most Americans are not prepared to deal with the very likely painful consequences of government action to only attempt and not necessarily succeed in even making a dent in slowing climate change.
Further survey work should be conducted to gauge how effective Americans think the US government would be in slowing climate change. It should also measure what costs Americans would be willing to bear in order to at least try government’s hand at combating rising temperatures. It should also ask to what extent they believe market innovations will provide solutions to climate change.