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MIT Survey: Climate Change Tops Americans’ Environmental Concerns

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.



Patrick Pettyjohn

The Pentagon has done studies on the effects of global warming on the Gulf Stream currents and concluded that the loss of that stream of warm water would cause a catastrophy for all of North America with huge population movements that would likely result in the worst fighting the USA has ever had.

Rafael Seidl

Wrt to federal policy in the US, don't hold your breath for anything more than window-dressing funds for more climate research before the next presidential election.

A more fruitful approach is to help US consumers understand how they can save money while reducing their personal CO2 footprint. This includes nuts-and-bolts issues such as properly insulating your house, switching to energy-star appliances incl. heaters & airco, avoiding excessive packaging and, making your next car either a hybrid or a clean diesel with an efficient transmission.

Filling up on biofuel blends is generally also a good idea for the environment, though their production generally involves some CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. Progressive consumers are flocking to bio-products for the sake of the environment alone, but truly substantial sales volumes require tangible economic savings for the consumer.

Relatively modest behavioral changes such as only running full loads of laundry and organizing errand runs also have an impact and require no capital investments. The instructional video websites that are popping up now could help here. Major improvements are also possible in driving style. Specialized driving schools offer hands-on classes.

In other words, don't wait for Washington to get its act together. It's your money.

Bud Johns

"Major improvements are also possible in driving style."
Rafael, that is a profound statement. I regularly get mid to high 50's in my Prius (around town) and I don't get in other people's way to do it! The majority of drivers in this country could learn how to drive properly and save a bunch of fuel, emissions, not to even mention improved safety!!


There are loads of things people could do to reduce their personal carbon footprint for about $100:

1: Turn off things not in use.
2: Replace as many incandescent bulbs with CFLs as possible (subject to marital strife and aesthetics)
3: Turn the heaters down a bit etc etc.
4: Make sure your dishwasher and clothes washer are taking hot water.
5: Watch the power consumption of your PC ( vs a laptop)
6: Don't use Aeroglass when VISTA comes out.

If you want to get nerdy, get a "centameter" and monitor your house, or get a plug in electricity meter. This is useful for determining if chargers are using power when plugged in and not in use.
and so on.

You don't need solar cells or windmills - solar water heathers might be a good idea for some people.

Wait till LEDs get cheap enough and replace halogen spots with them (the CFL replacements look awful).

Turn it down and turn it off if you are not using it.



mahonj: What is VISTA?


VISTA is the next Microsoft Operating system.
It will be out for industrial users soon and for home users in the new year.
They are giving away vouchers at present (Dell etc) as it is so late.
It is a huge deal for microsoft as XP is about 5 years old at this stage.
One of its primary benefits is the "AeroGlass" user interface. This uses the graphics card to render 3d images of the screen ( instead of using a 2d mode in all previous operating systems ).
This will use lots more power ( say 50 - 100 watts ) if enabled ( you can disable it ).
And hence it will cause lots of CO2 to be needlessly emitted by power stations.
But it will look SO cool, that everyone will want it.
It will kill laptop battery life (so people may well disable it except for presentations ), but I can see lots of desktop machines being left on running aeroglass screen savers etc.
Search the web, but I don't have any figures for Aeroglass electric power requirements.


That is an important point. Whenever I step away from my PC (for a min or two) I turn off the monitor, or put it to sleep, sometimes hibernate.
_Mobile computers, by necessity, consume less power than desktops. Perhaps, if one can easily afford it, get a capable laptop for low power uses, and a desktop for the heavy lifting. Use the desktop when needed, and keep it off when you don't.
_Mobile computers are notoriously hard to upgrade. If manufacturers can come up with modular components (Chipsets, displays, processors, ram, etc) that can be swaped, that may lead laptops to become more lasting items. On the flipside, humans are usually destroyers of mobile computers, mostly in accidents but also in manufacturing the recent burning battery problem.
_If you can and are savy enough, upgrade instead of chucking the whole tower. That steel or aluminum (and plastic, sometimes glass and other metals too) case used alot of energy to go from ore to finished product (granted some was recycled scrap).


Another way to save fuel, and reduce CO2, would be to car pool.



AMD are doing some nice low power PCs which could be the start of a low power desktop system.
You are right about the unexpandibility of laptops, but the 17" desktop replacements are really very good.
[ Dell 9400 and equiv ].
There are a whole host of things you could do - the problem is not to become too obsessive about it and not to look like Jimmy Carter in his cardigan.


The Performance per Watt positions are becoming muddled. Since 3rd quarter 2006, Intel and their triple thrust of new procvessors have really taken some of the shine off of AMD. For the consumer, it is good Intel has finally completed the transition after sitting on their behinds from 2003-2005. They still have another generation to go (by early 2008), and half a dozen bottlenecks, and potential problems to fix before they can claim, fully, the crown again.


High (and higher) efficiency LEDs, would also help. In cars, at work and home, they will bump halogens and CFL's when they become economical, and can get more lumens per watt (>65 lumen/watt). Further down the road, they may be able to replace, or compete with, linear fluorescents, and Xenon HID lamps. There are other lamps, some in the 100-150 lumen/watt range, that may also play a role, if they come down in price.


So Americans are willing to pay $21 more dollars on their $150-$200 electric bills to "solve" global warming? They will pay that level of increase yearly from here on due to the decreased supply of natural gas.

Are they willing to live in a house that is half (or less) the size of the one they have? Are they willing to cut their driving by 80%, their electricity use by 90%? Are they willing to stop eating meat, and processed foods, and buy only locally grown produce?

If they are not, then they might as well not do anything.


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