Poll shows public doesn’t fear global warming

Published November 1, 2000

Climate change? Fuggedaboudit.

At least that’s the message that emerges from a survey the World Wildlife Fund took to register public opinion on global warming.

Asked to rank their favorite looming environmental disasters, the respondents—registered voters all—ticked off the following: 1) air pollution, 2) water pollution, and 3) toxic waste, in that order.

Global warming ranked a distant sixth (out of 11 items), coming in just behind “dealing with household garbage and waste,” while besting the destruction of forests, oceans, coastlines, and plants and animals. (Perhaps those surveyed noticed there are plenty of plants, animals, forests, coastlines, and oceans to go around).

Only 8 percent of the respondents listed global warming as their most pressing concern, and another 8 percent listed it as their second choice.

World Wildlife Federation telephone pollsters asked the following question, among others, in July 2000:

When cars, power companies, and some other industries burn oil, coal, and gasoline they release carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere. Some scientists say these gases trap heat in the atmosphere, causing the earth to warm. They say this makes the world hotter and increases the chances of all kinds of extreme weather. This effect is called global warming. Generally speaking, how serious of a threat do you think global warming is today, very serious, somewhat serious, not too serious, or not serious at all—or don’t you have an opinion on this?

By presenting carbon dioxide solely as a byproduct of human activity that “caus[es] the earth to warm,” the WWF pollsters commit a sin of omission. Carbon dioxide is in fact a natural part of life on Earth, and has been since long before the Industrial Revolution started an era of elevated CO2 levels.

To say “some scientists” believe “this makes the world hotter” is vague indeed. Hotter than what? Scientists in fact agree that without the greenhouse gases, which occur naturally, the planet would be an all-but-uninhabitable iceball.

And you can bet that respondents to this survey heard the phrase “extreme weather” and thought, “Hurricanes! Tornadoes! El Niño! Oh, my!” Most are not well-informed enough to know the science behind the local news’ sensationalistic coverage of what are in fact routine weather events that fall well within the range of normal for the nation. They just don’t want their beach houses or trailers to blow away.

Thus characterized, global warming was considered a “very serious” (36 percent) or “somewhat serious” (42 percent) threat by survey respondents. And who can blame them, given the leading question the WWF asked them?

But a look at the survey results as a whole tempts us to voice three cheers for the American public, who, despite the WWF’s best efforts, managed in the end to see through this rhetoric and identify their real environmental priorities.

As people tend to say about a certain other WWF—the World Wrestling Federation—”It’s all scripted. They know how it’s going to come out before they even begin!”

Or so they thought. Fifth from the bottom says a lot.

Robert E. Davis, Ph.D., is an associate professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia. Amy Lemley is managing editor of World Climate Report.