The Impact of the Fall 1997 Debate About Global Warming on the American Public

SUMMARY OF REPORT

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Introduction

The research described in this article was designed to assess the impact of the 1997 Global Warming debate on the public’s beliefs and attitudes about global warming. We did so by conducting two national surveys asking Americans about their beliefs and attitudes regarding global warming. One of these surveys was conducted in September and October 1997, before the public debate about global warming began, and the other was conducted between December 1997 and February 1998, after the public debate had ended. We address three principal questions in this research: What were the public’s beliefs and attitudes before the media campaign began? Did the debate engage the public’s attention? And did the debate change beliefs and attitudes about global warming?

In sum, we sought to: assess the distribution of opinions about global warming in the general American public and in the global warming issue public before the 1997 debate; assess whether the debate engaged people (as indexed by media exposure, thinking, certainty, accessibility, knowledge, and personal importance); assess whether aggregate distributions of opinions changed during the fall of 1997; and assess whether cross-cutting changes occurred among opposing partisan groups.

Methods

The two national surveys we conducted assessed attitudes and beliefs about global warming, before the fall 1997 debate and again immediately afterward. We asked identical questions in both surveys so that we could assess changes over time in Americans’ beliefs and attitude about the issue.

Sample

Wave I.

Computer-assisted telephone interviews lasting 30 minutes on average were conducted with a representative sample of 688 American adults by the Ohio State University Survey Research Unit between September 17, 1997, and October 5, 1997. The sample was generated via random digit dialing, and the cooperation rate was 67 percent. Within-household sampling was done by asking the adult resident with the most recent birthday to participate.

Wave II.

Computer-assisted telephone interviews lasting 35 minutes on average were conducted with a representative sample of 725 American adults by the Ohio State University Survey Research Unit between December 20, 1997, and February 13, 1998. The sample was generated via random digit dialing, and the cooperation rate was 71 percent. Within-household sampling was also done by asking the adult resident with the most recent birthday to participate.

Measures:

1. Existence.

During all interviews, respondents were asked whether they thought global warming had been happening in the past and whether global warming would occur in the future if nothing were done to stop it.

2. Seriousness.

Respondents were asked how serious a national problem they thought global climate change and various other national problems will be.

3. Attitude toward global warming.

Respondents were asked if they thought global warming would be good, bad, or neither good nor bad.b Respondents who said global warming would be good or bad were then asked if they thought it would be very good/bad or somewhat good/bad. Respondents who said it would be neither good nor bad were then asked if they leaned toward thinking it would be good or leaned toward thinking it would be bad.

4. Attitude features related to strength.

Respondents were asked how much they had thought about global warming, how much they knew about global warming, how personally important the issue of global warming was to them, and how certain they were about their opinions about global warming. In addition, interviewers measured the length of time it took respondents to report their attitudes toward global warming after being asked the question, which is a measure of the accessibility of these attitudes in people’s memories.

5. Ameliorative effort and policies.

Respondents were asked how much the U.S. government, foreign governments, U.S. businesses, and average people should do about global warming, and how much each of these groups were doing then about global warming. Respondents were also asked about the effectiveness of one potential method for combating global warming whether they believed reducing air pollution would reduce future global warming. People were also asked whether they supported specific policies to reduce air pollution: whether the federal government should limit air pollution from U.S. businesses, whether the U.S. should require countries to which it gives foreign aid to reduce air pollution, and whether respondents would be willing to pay more for utilities to reduce air pollution.

6. Activism.

Respondents were asked about any actions they had taken to express their attitudes toward global warming—by writing a letter to a public official, giving money to an organization, or attending a group meeting.

7. Consequences of global warming.

To identify the effects people might think global warming will have, we content-analyzed news media stories, conducted focus groups in cities around the country, and examined the findings of relevant previous studies. We then selected a set of the most commonly-mentioned effects to ask our respondents about, involving sea levels, water shortages, food supplies, the number of types of animals in the world, the number of types of plants in the world, and the frequency of hurricanes and tornadoes.

8. Demographics.

Respondents were asked a series of demographic questions to assess political party identification, age, race, household income, and education. The interviewer coded the respondent’s gender, and the respondent’s telephone number revealed the region of the country in which he or she lived.

Results

1. Americans’ opinions in September–October 1997

According to our first wave of data, huge majorities of Americans shared President Clinton’s beliefs about global warming before the fall debate.

2. Existence of global warming.

In September–October, 77 percent of people said they thought the world’s temperature probably had been rising during the last 100 years, and 74 percent of people said they thought the world’s temperature will probably go up in the future if nothing is done to stop it.

3. Attitudes toward global warming.

A majority of Americans (61 percent) believed that global warming would be bad; 15 percent of people thought it would be good; and 22 percent thought it would be neither good nor bad.

4. National seriousness of global warming.

When asked how serious a problem climate change is likely to be for the country, 33 percent said that it would be a very serious or extremely serious problem. Climate change was viewed as less serious than many other problems.

5. Effort to combat global warming.

When asked how much should be done to combat global warming, a majority of Americans advocated significant effort. Fifty-nine percent said the U.S. government should do “a great deal” or “quite a bit;” 58 percent said the same about other countries’ governments; and 59 percent said so about U.S. businesses.

6. Support for specific action to deal with global warming.

In September–October, 80 percent of respondents thought that reducing air pollution would reduce future global warming. A large majority of Americans (88 percent) said the U.S. government should limit the amount of air pollution that U.S. businesses can produce. Likewise, a substantial proportion of people (71 percent) thought the U.S. should require countries to which it gives money to reduce their air pollution production. A large majority (77 percent) of people said they would be willing to pay more money for utilities each month in order to reduce the amount of air pollution utility companies produce.

7. The issue public in September–October

Nine percent of respondents said global warming was an extremely important issue to them personally and therefore composed the issue public for this issue. Although this figure may seem small, it is typical of the size of issue publics for many prominent and widely debated issues.

8. Existence of global warming.

Ninety-one percent of issue-public members believed that global warming had been happening, compared to only 78 percent of nonmembers, a significant difference. Similarly, 84 percent of issue-public members thought that global warming would occur in the future, compared to only 76 percent of nonmembers, a sizable, but not quite significant difference

9. Was global warming a problem?

Sixty-four percent of issue-public members thought that global warming was likely to be a very serious or extremely serious problem, whereas only 30 percent of nonmembers felt this way, a highly significant difference.

10. Effort to combat global warming.

As compared to nonmembers, greater percentages of issue-public members thought that a great deal or quite a bit should be done to deal with global warming by the U.S. government (83 percent vs. 56 percent) by the governments of other countries (81 percent vs. 56 percent), by U.S. businesses (82 percent vs. 56 percent), and by average people (71 percent vs. 41 percent). But the vast majorities of issue-public members and nonmembers agreed that these groups were not doing that much to address the problem.

11. Support for specific action to deal with global warming.

Issue public members and nonmembers did not differ in the percentages who believed that reducing air pollution would reduce future global warming (85 percent vs. 80 percent) Issue public members were more likely than nonmembers to think the U.S. should require countries to which it gives aid to reduce air pollution (83 percent vs. 70 percent) but were not notably more likely to think that the government should limit air pollution from U.S. businesses (91 percent vs. 88 percent). Nor did the percentages of issue-public members and nonmembers who were willing to pay more for utilities to reduce air pollution differ significantly (71 percent vs. 78 percent).

Summary.

In September–October, issue-public members endorsed the views advocated by President Clinton before the fall 1997 debate began, even more so than did the general public. A large majority of the issue public believed in the existence of global warming, believed it would be undesirable, felt efforts should be made to combat it, and supported federal legislation and personal sacrifice as mechanisms for doing so. Nearly a third (31 percent) had taken some sort of action to express their beliefs on this issue. Therefore, the people most likely to influence government on this issue could hardly have agreed more with the president.

1. Did the debate reach people?

In September–October, 38 percent of respondents said they had seen a television news story about global warming during the previous four months. This figure rose significantly to 50 percent (among people interviewed in December–February). In September–October, 28 percent of respondents said they had seen a newspaper story about global warming during the prior four months, and this figure rose marginally significantly to 33 percent in December–February. Thus, the debate did reach people as gauged in this way. And it is quite possible that people were exposed to many more stories than they could later recall, so these may be underestimates of increased exposure. In September–October, issue-public members were more likely than nonmembers to have been exposed to television news stories about global warming (51 percent vs. 37 percent). Exposure to such stories increased sharply between September–October and December– February among people not in the global warming issue public (from 37 percent to 51 percent) Recollection of story exposure actually decreased marginally significantly, from 51 percent to 41 percent, among issue-public members.

From all these indicators, it appears the barrage of news coverage about global warming and the accompanying discussions did indeed reach people. People were more likely to have been exposed to news stories; they had thought more about the issue; their attitudes on the issue were more accessible; they were more certain of their opinions; and more people considered the issue to be extremely important.

2. Did the debate change overall distributions of opinions?

Existence of global warming. When examined on the surface, American public opinion seems to have remained largely unaltered by the fall 1997 debate. In December–February, 79 percent of people said global warming had been occurring, and 75 percent said they thought it would occur in the future if nothing were done to stop it.

3. Attitudes toward global warming.

The same size majority of Americans (58 percent) continued to believe that global warming would be bad for people.

4. Consequences of global warming.

When asked about the consequences of global warming, the percentage of respondents who thought global warming would cause more storms (71 percent), reduce food supplies (56 percent), cause more water shortages (53 percent), cause sea levels to rise (53 percent), and cause the extinction of some animal species (50 percent) and plant species (49 percent) were very similar to the percentages assessed in September–October.

5. National seriousness.

The literature on news media agenda-setting suggests that the increased media coverage of global warming should have instigated growth in the proportion of Americans considering it to be an important national problem. Remarkably, we found no evidence of such agenda-setting. In September–October, the percentage of people who thought that global warming was an extremely or very serious problem was 33 percent, and in December–February, it was 32 percent. The percentage of respondents who believed that global warming was a very serious or extremely serious problem continued to be less than the percentage who believed this about people being able to get good health care (58 percent), the cost of things (37 percent), having enough good jobs (43 percent), the natural environment (50 percent), education (51 percent), and crime (69 percent).

6. Effort to combat global warming.

No significant changes were observed in the distributions of beliefs and attitudes about what should be done to deal with global warming or what was currently being done. Fifty-seven percent of respondents believed that the U.S. government should do a great deal or quite a bit about global warming; 58 percent of respondents believed that governments in other countries should do a great deal or quite a bit about global warming; 59 percent of respondents believed that U.S. businesses should do a great deal or quite a bit about global warming; and 43 percent believed that average people should do a great deal or quite a bit about global warming. Specific action to deal with global warming.

No change appeared in the percentage of respondents who said they believed reducing air pollution would reduce global warming (80 percent in September–October and 79 percent in December–February. Statistically significant movement did appear suggesting more public support for legislative solutions and less support for personal sacrifices to combat global warming. For example, 91 percent of people in December–February said the U.S. government should limit air pollution by U.S. businesses, up from 88 percent in September–October. Eighty percent of people said the U.S. should require air pollution reductions from countries to which it gives foreign aid in December–February, up from 71 percent in September–October

Surprisingly, fewer people were willing to pay increased utility bills to reduce air pollution: 72 percent in December–February, as compared to 77 percent in September–October

 Summary.

In line with the minimal effects view, very few changes occurred in overall distributions of opinions. And this was equally true for issue-public members and nonmembers alike. These results leave unchallenged the general conclusion that the fall 1997 debate had very little impact on public opinion