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Most Say Global Warming is Real, But Does That Mean They’re Ready to Make Changes?

Surveys show the American public is more convinced of the reality of global warming – but how much will that really shift policy?

Two surveys released this month, from the Pew Research Center and the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, both find solid majorities of Americans who say global warming is real and growing numbers who say it’s caused by human activity. The questions used are slightly different, but both agree that there’s been an increase.

  • Pew finds 67 percent say there is “solid evidence” the planet is warming, up 10 points from 2009. Some 42 percent tell Pew researchers the warming is caused by human activity such as burning fossil fuels, an increase of eight points since 2010.
  • Yale found 70 percent who say “global warming is happening,” an increase of 13 points, and 54 percent who say it’s caused by human activity, up 8 points since 2010.
  • While most people in the Yale survey still believe global warming is a distant threat, the survey also found four in 10 who say people around the world are being harmed right now by climate change.
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It isn’t clear what’s driving the change, although Yale speculates that the extreme weather of the past several years may play a role. It’s also true that surveys showed public belief in climate change dipped in 2009 and 2010 – even with the recent shift, fewer say climate change is real than in 2006. There are also significant differences by age and party identification.

Many environmentalists and climate scientists have seemed mesmerized by surveys like this, because they’re convinced of a basic premise: If people believe climate change is real, then they’ll support action to prevent it.

But in fact, public thinking on solutions is a lot more complicated than that.

Accepting the problem isn’t the same thing as embracing a solution. Solving our energy problems is largely a matter of making tradeoffs, and the tradeoffs get complicated very quickly. The world desperately needs more energy, as places like China and India develop and increase demand, yet it also needs energy that’s clean, affordable and secure.

And it’s difficult to get clean, affordable and secure energy in one package. No energy source is perfect. Every option has flaws. Coal is cheap but dirty. Nuclear is clean but expensive and potentially risky. Oil is prone to price swings and political disruptions. Wind and solar require big investments to scale up.

No matter what option you pick, someone’s going to be unhappy, and something is going to be sacrificed.

What’s more, even if they believe global warming is real, people may not see it as the country’s top priority. Other problems, like the economy, may be more pressing, or none of the options may seem practical or palatable.

But this is what leaders are for: to make the choices clear to the public, and to move policy forward. So far, based on the presidential debates, we’re having half of the discussion we need. Climate change barely rates a mention, yet it’s as much a part of the tradeoffs we need to consider as the price of gas or energy security.

Accepting the reality of global warming is important. But unless you also accept the tradeoffs needed to address it, you haven’t really moved forward.