Turning Up the Heat

By Published on .

It's hot outside, but do Americans think it's getting hotter? Do they care enough to do something about it? President Bush seems to think not. His refusal to sign the Kyoto accord this spring set off a storm of worldwide protest. Americans have not yet reacted as sharply as Europeans — not surprising given Americans' conflicting sentiments about the country's relative responsibility for the threat of global warming.

In fact, public opinion in the United States has been remarkably stable on the issue. The percentage of Americans expressing concern in a 1989 Gallup poll is locked in a dead heat with the figure today: In each poll, 63 percent of respondents said they worried a fair amount or great deal about Earth's impending warmth. According to a March 2001 Time/CNN poll, most Americans, 67 percent, think the President should develop a plan to reduce the emission of gas that may contribute to global warming. Perhaps July temperatures will cause more Americans to put the heat on the administration, though a shift in views seems likely.

It's Too Darn Hot

Most Americans are aware of global warming and believe in the generally accepted scientific causes of global warming, but significantly fewer are concerned about the impact global warming might have. In an August 2000 Harris poll, Americans were asked about their beliefs concerning global warming and specifically about the relationship between temperature changes and forest fires. Many more believed in global warming in general than as a cause of fires. (Only 35 percent attributed last summer's fires to temperature trends.)

Have you ever seen, heard or read about the theory of global warming — that average temperatures are rising slowly and will continue to rise mainly because of the burning of coal, oil, and other fuels?

Do you believe the theory that increased carbon dioxide and other gases released into the atmosphere will, if unchecked, lead to global warming and an increase in average temperatures?

RESPONSE 2000 1997
Believe 72% 67%
Do not believe 20% 21%
Not sure/refused 9% 12%

Do you think that the possibility of global warming should be treated as a very serious problem, a somewhat serious problem, or not a serious problem?

RESPONSE 2000 1997
Very serious 46% 47%
Somewhat serious 39% 40%
Not a serious problem 13% 11%
Not sure/refused 1% 2%
Note: Numbers may not sum to 100 due to rounding.

Warming Gets Worse

Less than a year after the Harris poll, American concern about global warming has grown. A March 2001 Time/CNN poll conducted by Yankelovich Partners/Harris focused on American concerns about global warming and their willingness to take action. The poll addressed three major areas: concern over global warming, desire for government to take action, and willingness to make personal sacrifices to address the problem.

Overall, Americans are surprisingly willing to make personal sacrifices to combat global warming, though they are somewhat less inclined to pay higher gas prices now than they were in 1990, when gas prices were much lower. In 1990, a majority (59 percent) were willing to accept a 25 cent per gallon price increase, compared with 48 percent today.

Americans express the contradictory idea that while business interests have a harmful effect on the environment, environmental regulation should not have a harmful effect on business. At the same time, they want President Bush to override business sector objections to governmental action; 67 percent think Bush “should develop a plan to reduce the emission of gases that may contribute to global warming.�


Is global warming a very serious problem, a fairly serious problem, not a very serious problem, or not at all serious?

Very serious 43%
Fairly serious 32%
Not very serious 14%
Not at all serious 7%

When it comes to protecting the environment does the government give in to business interests too often?

Yes 69%
No 26%


Would you be willing to pay an extra 25 cents per gallon of gas to reduce pollution and global warming?

Yes 48%
No 49%

Would you personally be willing to support tough government actions to help reduce global warming even if each of the following happened as a result?

Your utility bills went up 47% 49%
Unemployment increased 38% 55%
A mild increase in inflation 54% 39%
Note: Numbers may not sum to 100 since not all answers shown.

Kyoto or Not

In a December 2000 poll conducted by Zogby International, global warming questions were framed around two aspects of the issue: the extent to which America should be held to higher standards than other countries and the relative costs to American industry. The questions made no mention of potential environmental or diplomatic benefits of the pact. This may account for the comparatively low level of support shown for Kyoto in this poll relative to other polls on the issue.

In an earlier October 2000 survey, Zogby asked Americans the following question: “Which candidate is most likely to get your support with regard to the global warming treaty? Bush-Cheney oppose the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty, because it places tough standards on U.S. industries and little or no restrictions on industries in developing nations, that would cost Americans jobs and raise costs to consumers. Gore-Lieberman support the treaty, which requires American businesses to meet environmental and human rights standards that may or may not be imposed on industries in developing nations.� The winner? Bush-Cheney: 46 percent to Gore-Lieberman, 42 percent.

Which of the following three statements reflects your values?

Statement A: The U.S. should support the Kyoto Protocol, which requires American businesses to have their industries conform to higher standards than industries in developing nations.

Statement B: The U.S. should oppose the treaty because it places tough standards on U.S. industries with little or no restrictions on industries in developing nations that would cost American jobs and raise costs to consumers.

VARIABLE Total Male Female White Hispanic African

Liberal Moderate Conservative Catholic Protestant Born Again
Agree with A 46% 40% 51% 46% 56% 51% 70% 52% 33% 50% 41% 40%
Agree with B 42% 52% 34% 43% 40% 33% 21% 36% 56% 39% 45% 48%
Note: Numbers may not sum to 100 because other responses were allowed.


  • Americans are clearly concerned about global warming, but their understanding of the potential costs and benefits of combating the issue seem shaky at best.
  • Despite Americans' desire for global cooperation, they are wary of global commitment. Americans exhibit little concern about the impact of environmental regulation on developing countries or other foreign nations.
  • Though Americans perceive global warming in vague terms, they are quite specific about the personal sacrifices they are willing to make to lessen the threat, and are more generous with regard to potential ways for government and business to address the issue.


  • Consumers want to know that American companies embrace policies that exhibit responsibility towards global warming. In the wake of the failed Kyoto Protocol and given the current administration's priorities, Americans might respond particularly well to compensatory initiatives from the private sector.
  • At the same time, consumers need to be assured that their products and services will remain affordable.
  • Marketing messages that build on corporate environmental policy or products and services with environmental benefits should emphasize three things:
    1. The company's independent, proactive approach;
    2. Benefits to the environment (though no need to get too specific); and
    3. Low or no cost to consumers.
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