Fewer Americans See Climate Change a Threat, Caused by Humans

A new poll says shift in climate change ideas more rapid in America than other countries.

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Though climate change hasn't received quite the same attention it had back in 2006 and 2007, it's not too surprising that the vast majority of Americans still know at least something about it. But what they know exactly is changing, and national politics certainly seems to be playing a part.

According to a Gallup poll released Friday, 96 percent of Americans in 2010 said they know a great deal or something about climate change. And while that's down 1 percentage point from 2007 to 2008, it's not a significant change, especially considering how media attention to the issue has dropped off quite significantly since around 2007, when coverage was at its peak. [Read: Do Americans care about climate change anymore?]

However, what Americans who know about climate change think about it has changed quite a bit—namely, they see it as less of a problem—and that change has happened much more rapidly than in the four other top greenhouse gas emitting countries, China, Russia, Japan, and India. In 2010, according to the poll, only 55 percent of Americans believed climate change was a threat to them and their families. That's down 9 percentage points from 64 percent in 2007 and 2008. Also, the percentage of people who believe climate change results all or in part from human causes is down a full 11 percentage points. While 61 percent of Americans in 2007 and 2008 believed that humans were at least partially responsible for climate change, only half believed so in 2010.

In Japan, where a higher percentage of people say they know about climate change, the same decline in threat perception and belief in human causes happened too, though less significantly. In Russia, people's perception of threat went up from 2007 and 2008, but there was no change in the belief in human causes. Then, by contrast, in India, more people in 2010 (an increase of 16 percentage points, from 58 percent to 74 percent) believe that climate change is caused by humans. That same increase happened in China, though it was not as significant. [Read more from the Energy Intelligence blog.]

What's interesting about these results is that climate change has been a predominantly international issue, with the United Nations and its International Panel on Climate Change taking the lead on many initiatives and scientific reports. But, it's clear that rather than listen to the multilateral body—which continues to publicize both the threat and human causes of climate change—people, especially in the United States, are much more tuned in to the politics and the news of their own country.

In America, at least, the strong push from many climate change skeptics, which are now represented by many Republicans in Congress, appear to be making a difference in public views, particularly on the issue of whether humans are the cause. The more conservatives make noise denying the problem of climate change, perhaps, the more people, especially their base, catch on to that view. The decrease in media coverage may also play a role in the public's perception of threat, as climate change has been put on the backburner in favor of energy security and green jobs. [Read about whether global warming will matter in the 2012 elections.]

As Hurricane Irene bears down on the East Coast this weekend, expect a round of commentary from groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council calling attention to the effects of climate change. But, with the trend shifting away from believing in such warnings, it's unlikely that many Americans will even take notice.

  • Read more from the Energy Intelligence blog.
  • Check out our political cartoon gallery on energy and climate change.
  • See a slide show of 10 reasons Americans aren't talking about climate change.