A new poll shows that Americans do care about global warming, but don’t seem to realize how prevalent it really is.
This week Gallup released data from its latest poll on global warming indicating that more Americans — 41 percent, the highest number since 1998 — believe that global warming is exaggerated. This sounds like cause for concern similar to what I wrote about back in January when polls indicated more Americans believe global warming is caused by planetary trends than humans. But in fact, the data on this poll isn’t as cut and dry as some of the media wants to insinuate. While the poll did find a slight decrease in the number of Americans who are a “fair amount” or “great deal” concerned about global warming, 60 percent of Americans still identify themselves this way.
The irony in the way the story was reported is that the poll shows the majority of Americans believe the seriousness of global warming is accurately portrayed by the media. Yet, some stories went on to report the story as, “Americans doubting global warming.” It indicates yet another instance in which the media spun the story of global warming in a confusing and misleading way. What would the effect have been if the story read, “Majority of Americans believe seriousness of global warming is accurate.” Perhaps the increased American confusion and doubt about global warming is simply a byproduct of misconstrued media messages marked by sensationalist titles.
The poll is fascinating, though, for other very significant reasons. First, the poll notes that all of the increase in cynicism came from Americans 30 years old or older. Does that mean that America’s youth are increasingly recognizing the importance and significance of global warming? As a participant and panelist at Powershift in Washington D.C. two weeks ago, in which more than 10,000 of America’s youth came together to stand up for climate change policies, I have no doubt that this is true. The youth of our nation are slated to inherit the myriad problems of global warming and they are increasingly recognizing the importance of climate change mitigation and adaptation as a broader part of our economic development and environmental protection.
I also don’t believe that the majority of Americans are failing to recognize the importance of global warming or are incapable of acting on it, but rather that they still may not fully grasp the ubiquitous nature of the crisis. This became apparent in the Gallup poll when respondents ranked global warming dead last among their environmental concerns. Topping the list of environmental woes was drinking water, soil and water contamination, air pollution, loss of rain forests and extinction of plants and animals. Yet the underlying theme among all of these concerns is the overarching pressure that rising temperatures have on impacting these issues.
Drinking water and all fresh water will continue to become one of the most important issues for survival in the 21st century, and increased warming will perpetuate evaporation and loss of water supplies. One of the greatest sources of soil and water contamination in this country is from synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides, which not only create significant environmental “dead zones” in our waterways but poison drinking water supplies in rural areas. The production, transport, and application of agricultural chemicals contribute notable amounts of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide (310 times as potent at carbon dioxide) emissions to the atmosphere; in fact, nearly two thirds of all human-caused nitrous oxide emissions are from agriculture. The loss of our rainforests, often for the expansion of agricultural land to grow biofuels and animal feed, is releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, further exacerbating warming temperatures. The polar bear is directly threatened with dwindling populations almost entirely due to the loss of arctic sea ice as a result of increased atmospheric temperatures. And air pollution? Are people really failing to recognize that air pollution and global warming are inherently connected?
Perhaps if the American people began to better understand the broad effects of warming temperatures they would recognize its seriousness. Nearly every environmental problem we are facing today is perpetuated or exacerbated by increased global temperatures and the other weather events that will ensue. In tough economic times it is especially difficult to grasp the importance of environmental preservation, which is often viewed at direct odds with economic development. This week, President Obama defied those stereotypes by appointing Van Jones as his green jobs guru, tasked to simultaneously increase environmental protection and economic stimulus. I have hope that he can not only rise to the task but also tie together environment and economy in a way that we can all better understand.