According to a recent MIT survey, Americans now rank climate change as the country’s most pressing environmental problem—a substantive shift from three years ago, when they ranked climate change sixth out of 10 environmental concerns.
The environment continues to rank in the middle of the list of “most important issues facing the US today.” Among 10 environmental problems, 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.
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.—Stephen Ansolabehere, MIT
The survey results were released 31 Oct. 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.
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.
In designing and administering the surveys, the research team collaborated with Knowledge Networks, a company that specializes in Internet-based public opinion surveys. More than 1,200 people answered each survey (with no overlap between the two groups of respondents).
There is an increased sense that global warming is an established problem. In the 2006 survey, 28% of the respondents agreed that it is a serious problem and immediate action is necessary—up from 17% in 2003. All together, almost 60% of the 2006 respondents agreed that there’s enough evidence to warrant some level of action.
The other big 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% increase in their willingness to pay.
Assuming 100 million U.S. households, total payments in that scenario would be $25 billion per year. For context, Ansolabehere points out that the US Department of Energy’s budget for energy R&D is now about $2 billion per year.
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.—Stephen Ansolabehere
The MIT team undertook the original survey in 2003 to find out what the public thought about carbon capture and storage (CCS), an approach the researchers had been studying for more than a decade. The team was not surprised to find that more than 90% of the respondents had never heard of CCS. The 2006 survey showed similar results.
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.
It’s not that people have learned something fundamental about the science, but they’ve come to understand that this problem is real. 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.—Stephen Ansolabehere
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.