This March, climate change is a hot topic almost every day, with new studies showing its potential to slow down deep ocean current, its effect in extending wildflowers bloom one month longer, its threats to global water supply, its potential to increase food price, cause famine, outbreak of disease, etc. Along with these objective studies, there are two polls, one by Gallup and one by Huffington Post, providing subjective studies on Americans’ perceptions on climate change.
The Gallup annual Environmental poll was conducted March 6-9 with a random sample of 1,048 adults in U.S. The HuffPost/YouGov poll was conducted March 15-17 using 1,000 adults in U.S. selected from YouGov’s online panel. Both polls show around 65 percent of Americans believe that the effects of global warming are happening or will begin to happen during their lifetime, and 36 percent believe it will pose a serious threat to their way of life during their lifetime.
The Gallup poll started to ask people these questions from 1997. The percentage of people who believe climate change is happening/will happen in their lifetime is 2014 is the same as it was 17 years ago. The percentage of people who believe their way of life will be impaired in their lifetime increased by 11 percent from what it is in 1997. The 2008 poll recorded the peak of both numbers: 75 percent and 40 percent, respectively.
Two reasons may explain why Americans’ perception of climate change shown in these two polls has changed since 2008. The economic recession happened in Fall 2008 has pushed the economic development to the No.1 priority for both the politics and the everyday life of Americans. The actions that scientists recommended to slow down climate change are rarely cheap nor fast. The other reason, probably more important, is the Climatic Research Unit email controversy, better known as “Climategate” in November 2009. This severely tainted the credibility of climate scientists and damaged the confidence of public.
When sorting the poll results based on age group, the Gallup poll shows although young Americans are most likely to believe the effects of global warming will occur during their life time, this age group does not have noticeably higher percentage of people who believe it will pose serious threat to their way of life, when comparing with other age groups. Young people are best positioned to be convinced that such threats are tangible, as they are better connected to knowledge and information than any other age group, yet they are not based on the poll result.
A unique question in the HuffPost/YouGov poll is to ask Americans whether their way of life would be threatened by climate change in the future, not just in their lifetime. The result is 56 percent of Americans said yes. Environmental organizations may have better success to rally actions for climate change by focusing on the grandchildren, or great-grandchildren generations, to get attention from 56 percent of Americans, rather than focusing on immediate threats that only 36 percent of Americans believe.
No matter how convincing the science can be, Americans’ perception on climate change is the fundamental drive in taking actions to reduce threats from climate change, and scientists and environmentalists have their work cut out from these two polls.
Opinion by Tina Zhang