Americans have spoken about global warming, and their current message seems to be: "It's serious, but we have other problems to worry about."
The issue tied for last on a list of domestic priorities for President Bush and Congress in a 2008 survey from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (see table below), lagging behind the "influence of lobbyists" and "moral breakdown." The results mirrored an April New York University poll finding that global warming had less immediacy in American minds than Medicare and Social Security.
Last week, Gallup reported that only a third of Americans worry about global warming "a great deal," a percentage that has budged little since 1989. Less than half of the respondents in the poll indicated that climate change would pose a serious threat to them in their lifetimes, prompting Gallup's Frank Newport to write that "there has been no consistent upward trend on worry about global warming going back for decades."
While Americans frequently express concern about climate change when asked about it separately by pollsters, they often list the economy, crime, illegal immigration and health care higher on their anxiety lists. The lack of intensity behind global warming threatens to stifle lawmakers who hope to ride a public opinion wave to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, many analysts say.
'Inconvenient Truth' remains so for most
"The conventional wisdom is that media coverage and An Inconvenient Truth [former Vice President Al Gore's documentary on global warming] changed public opinion," said Matthew Nisbet, an assistant professor of communication at American University. "Instead, most of the impact was to intensify things for those who already care about climate change."
Indeed, several polls reveal that the issue is highly partisan, with the gap between Democrats and Republicans higher than on other topics.
A huge dropoff in Republican support from 2007 to 2008 propelled the issue's fall from second-to-last to the bottom of Pew's annual survey, said Carroll Doherty, an associate director at the center. Last year, nearly twice as many Republicans, 23 percent, named global warming as a priority.
Only "providing insurance to the uninsured" ranked higher on Pew's 2008 "partisan gap" analysis.
Gore's association with the subject and frequent chatter on conservative talk radio and blogs helped breed suspicion about global warming among conservatives in recent years, as well as engender the idea that Democrats were trying to ruin the economy and censure alternative science with a "liberal, Hollywood elitist" agenda, Nisbet said.
Public distrust of the media has grown in the past 30 years, according to many polls, so a recent flood of green magazine covers and television spots showing melting ice caps and drowning polar bears may have solidified the view of skeptics that the climate threat is exaggerated, several analysts said.
People also tend to express more concern about something they can see and feel immediately, which is not currently the case for many with climate change, said Karlyn Bowman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who researches polls and public opinion. She said a majority of Americans think global warming is serious but may feel they have been heard already and are psychologically handing off the problem to politicians and interest groups.
Americans think science will resolve CO2 problem
"Another potential explanation is that Americans are remarkably confident in science and technology," Bowman added. "They think we'll figure out a way to fix global warming and that reduces the intensity in their minds."
Regardless of the source of the lackluster interest, many political scientists have indicated that the current apathy presents a problem for potential passage of climate legislation.
"Whenever you have systematic policy challenges that have a lot of costs, some in Congress need to see in polls that there is public support," said Nisbet. "If I had to guess, I'd say maybe at the end of 2009 we'll get something through."
Such a delay could have major economic and political ramifications.
A two-year lag in passing the main carbon cap-and-trade bill moving through the Senate would require that greenhouse gas emissions be cut by more than 4 percent a year rather than 2 percent a year to achieve the same carbon reductions, according to a Senate Democratic aide familiar with legislation sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.).
Already, some in Congress are seizing on polling data to fuel criticism of global warming fears.
"It's going to take much more than Al Gore's multimillion-dollar global warming alarmism campaign being supported by the Hollywood elite and mainstream media to fool the American people," said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who once called global warming a "hoax."
But Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) -- who appeared with other Senate Democrats at a press conference on Earth Day to pressure the Bush administration on environmental issues -- said he was not worried about current polling data and believed that the wording of questions often influenced the results.
"If you ask people what are the long-term challenges we need to be addressing as a country, I think you'll get a lot of them saying global warming," Bingaman said.
Even if Bingaman is wrong, a new president could shift the national mood quickly by using the bully pulpit, said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
A new president could create a sense of urgency
"Public opinion is never stuck," said Zelizer, noting that the three major presidential candidates -- Sens. Barack Obama (D), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) and John McCain (R) -- all support the idea of a carbon cap-and-trade system.
He said that interest in supply-side economics in the 1980s emerged from the polling backwaters solely because of President Ronald Reagan and support for the space program in the 1960s surged after President John F. Kennedy promised to put a man on the moon.
At a recent environmental panel in Washington, D.C., advisers to Obama, Clinton and McCain each promised that climate change would be on the agenda for their candidate's first 100 days in office.
Polls highlighted by environmental groups, especially those done in battleground states and among key constituencies, show much higher interest in climate change.
The National Wildlife Federation recently released a survey showing that two-thirds of New Hampshire hunters and fishers -- traditionally a Republican-leaning crowd -- believed global warming required immediate action. Eighty percent of Hispanic voters consider "energy and global warming" a major problem, according to a Sierra Club poll released last week.
Then there is the fact that, when other issues are left off the table, individuals often say global warming is happening and is serious.
Newsweek reported in 2007 that about half of Americans said global warming will be a major threat to "human life on earth" in 50 years. A Stanford University-Associated Press poll from September 2007 found that 59 percent of adults believed it would be a "very serious" problem for the world if not addressed in the future.
The energy industry frequently cites different data.
"Only in response to aided questions do likely voters focus on the issue -- and then the impacts are viewed to be far into the future," said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, which represents many coal companies.
Discrepancies from poll to poll often depend on the wording and order of questions, according to the American Enterprise Institute's Bowman. Asking people whether global warming is a problem for the world sometimes will generate a stronger response than questions centered on domestic issues, she said.
But she and other polling experts emphasized that multiple polls conducted from year to year document that global warming is a consistent bottom-dweller in comparison to challenges such as the war in Iraq or taxes.
Attempts to tie the issue to something else
To change that, supporters of controlling carbon dioxide emissions should consider reframing the issue around new green jobs and spiraling energy costs, which already rank as high priorities with Democrats and Republicans, American University professor Nisbet said.
McCain's environmental adviser, James Woolsey, made a similar point recently when he said he had convinced a Republican congressman to support climate control measures after tying the topic to terrorism in a hearing.
The congressman said, "If we're doing it for that reason, then fine," Woolsey recalled this month at an panel of the Society of Environmental Journalists.
A series of catastrophic events definitively tied to global warming also could shift public opinion, experts said. Such a phenomenon happened in the 1970s when the environment rose to the top of polling concerns after Americans began seeing images of dying bald eagles and rivers caught on fire because of pollution.
Yet some say that a massive communications effort with bipartisan overtones and a budget much higher than Al Gore's $300 million advertising campaign are necessary.
"There needs to be a campaign along the lines of the Manhattan Project," Nisbet said. "To break out of the current mental boxes, there needs to be a moral urgency similar to the civil rights movement or recovery from the Great Depression."