Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Climate Change Tops Americans' Environmental Concerns - MIT Survey Reveals Dramatic Shift from Previous Years

According to a recent MIT survey, Americans now rank climate change as the country's most pressing environmental problem - a dramatic shift from three years ago, when they ranked climate change sixth out of 10 environmental concerns [see graphic to right].

According to MIT, almost three-quarters of the respondents felt the government should do more to deal with global warming, and individuals were willing to spend their own money to help.

"While terrorism and the war in Iraq are the main issues of national concern, there's been a remarkable increase in the American public's recognition of global warming and their willingness to do something about it," said Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of Political Science at MIT.

The survey results were released Oct. 31 at the seventh annual Carbon Sequestration Forum, an international meeting held at MIT that focuses on methods of capturing and storing emissions of carbon dioxide - a major contributor to climate change.

[Graphic: Chart displays how Americans responded in 2003 (gray) and in 2006 (black) to MIT surveys asking them to rank 10 environmental issues in order of importance. From left, measured by percentage of responses ranking the item in first or second place, the issues are: global warming, destruction of ecosystems, water pollution, overpopulation, toxic waste, ozone depletion; urban sprawl, smog, endangered species, acid rain.]

According to MIT, the findings are a result of two surveys, the first administered in September 2003 and the follow-up in September 2006. Each survey included about 20 questions focusing on the environment, global warming and a variety of climate-change-mitigation technologies. More than 1,200 people answered each survey (with no overlap between the two groups of respondents).

Comparing results from the two surveys provides insights into how public awareness, concern and understanding have changed - or not changed - during the past three years [see graphic above].

The environment continues to rank in the middle of the list of "most important issues facing the U.S. today," the MIT survey found. However, among 10 environmental problems, global warming (or climate change) now tops the list: the survey found that almost half the respondents put global warming in first or second place. In 2003, the destruction of ecosystems, water pollution and toxic waste were far higher priorities, and global warming ranked 6th out of the ten environmental concerns.

There is also an increased sense that global warming is an established problem. In the 2006 survey, 28 percent of the respondents agreed that it is a serious problem and immediate action is necessary, up from 17 percent in 2003. All together, almost 60 percent of the 2006 respondents agreed that there's enough evidence to warrant some level of action, an encouraging sign that momentum is gathering for federal action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the risks of climate change.

According to MIT, the other significant change is a substantial increase in people's willingness to spend their own money to do something about it. In 2003, people were willing to pay on average $14 more per month on their electricity bill to "solve" global warming. In 2006 they agreed to pay $21 more per month - a 50 percent increase in their willingness to pay.

Could $21 make a real difference? Assuming 100 million U.S. households, total payments would be $25 billion per year, MIT reports. "That's real money," said Herzog. "While it cannot solve the whole problem, it can certainly make significant strides."

For context, Ansolabehere pointed out that the U.S. Department of Energy's budget for energy R&D is now about $2 billion per year [see previous post - it's actually about $3 billion]. "Another reading of this outcome is that people want not a little bit more spent but rather a lot more spent to solve this problem -- and they're willing to pay," he said.

The MIT team undertook the original survey in 2003 to find out what the public thought about carbon capture and storage (CCS), an approach that Herzog and his LFEE colleagues had been studying for more than a decade. The team was not surprised to find that more than 90 percent of the respondents had never heard of CCS. The 2006 survey showed similar results, MIT reports.

In general, the respondents' understanding of climate change and possible mitigation technologies showed little change between 2003 and 2006. In terms of their technology preferences, in 2006 most still recommended using more wind and solar energy and increasing efficiency, but more were willing to consider CCS and nuclear energy as possible approaches, the survey found.

"It's not that people have learned something fundamental about the science, but they've come to understand that this problem is real," said Ansolabehere. "It takes a prolonged discussion of a complex topic like this really to move public concern, and what's happened over the past three years has got to continue."

The researchers plan to analyze the survey results in more depth, in particular to test for correlations between answers to questions and the economic, political, geographical and other demographic characteristics of the respondents.

This research was supported by the MIT Carbon Sequestration Initiative. For more details about the surveys and their results, go to sequestration.mit.edu/research/survey2006.html.


This is very encouraging news for folks like myself working to enact public policy addressing climate change. It seems that 2006 may have been the year when the public moved beyond 'global warming is a controversy' and onto 'global warming is a problem that somebody needs to fix.'

Now, it's clear that the Average Joe still doesn't really understand the details of climate change or the science behind it, or even what needs to be done to solve it - but for the most part, that's OK. It's a bit much to expect everyone to fully understand a very complex issue like climate change. However, from a policymakers perspective, as long as the public is aware that there's a problem and is asking for it to be addressed - and is even willing to pay out of their own pockets to 'solve' the problem - that's a very good sign.

Obviously, with President Bush in office and Republicans controling both branches of Congress, we shouldn't expect much action on climate change, despite shifting public opinions. But, depending on the results of the mid-term elections next Tuesday, momemtum could be shifting towards federal action (finally!) to address global warming and greenhouse gas emissions. Momentum is clearly gathering at the state and regional level - with RPS policies in 20 states, and more to come soon, greenhouse gas emissions caps popping up in the Northeast and California, and carbon dioxide emissions standards for cars and light trucks in the Northeast and West Coast - and that's helping to drive a call from industry for federal action.

If big industrial players are asking for federal action to create a level playing field, and the public is crying out for something to be done, it's only a matter of time before we'll see federal legislation addressing climate change.

Of course, that doesn't mean we wont have to do plenty of work in the meantime channeling those voices and working on the right policies. But my prediction is that we're going to see federal climate change legislation (a federal carbon cap and trade system and probably a federal RPS) by 2010.

Of course, that'll be 10 years too late, and our delay in action will only necessitate more stringent regulations, but better late than never.

Call me in four years and we'll see if I was right...


[A hat tip to Green Car Congress]

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