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Poll: Warming Tops Lists of Americans' Environmental Concerns

by: Darren Samuelsohn    9 December 2006

Americans now consider global warming the nation's top environmental problem, according to a new Massachusetts Institute of Technology poll.

Nearly half of 1,236 people surveyed in the Internet poll agreed that climate change is the "most important problem facing the United States today," ahead of a host of other issues, including water pollution, overpopulation, toxic waste, urban sprawl and endangered species.

Global warming has surged ahead of the other issues compared with 2003, when MIT researchers asked many of the same questions of the public and found only about 20 percent considered climate change such a pressing matter.

"This is a major, major shift in just three years," Howard Herzog, principal research engineer in MIT's Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, said today in Washington, D.C., during a conference hosted by the American Petroleum Institute and the Energy Department.

MIT researchers conducted their original survey in the late summer of 2003. This September, researchers asked many of the same questions, as well as some new ones. In a paper accompanying the poll data, lead author and political science professor Stephen Ansolabehere called the survey the "first effort to track changes in public attitudes" about global warming.

Among other new findings, Americans appear willing to pay twice as much to combat climate change compared with 2003. The median respondent this fall said they would spend an additional $14 per month on their electricity bill, while the average respondent said they would pay $21.

In 2003, the median of 1,205 respondents said they would pay about $10 more per month. The 2003 average was just more than $14 a month.

The MIT survey also saw a jump in the number of people over three years who think global warming has become a "serious problem" where "immediate action is necessary." About 17 percent ranked climate change in such a category in 2003 compared with about 28 percent this fall.

In an interview, Herzog told reporters additional surveys will try to pinpoint what has happened in recent years to shift the public's focus to climate change. "We have a question of how big a role did [Hurricane] Katrina play in this," he said. "We don't know yet."

Carbon sequestration
MIT's interest in climate change is driven by its work on carbon sequestration, the potential for burying heat-trapping greenhouse gases in deep underground geologic formations or in oil and gas wells.

MIT researchers used the survey to assess what Americans know about the process. The answer: very little.

Fewer than 5 percent in both 2003 and 2006 said they had heard or read about carbon capturing, storage or sequestration. That compares with more than 60 percent who have come across information about solar energy. Hybrid cars were the most popular item, with more than 80 percent of respondents in 2006.

MIT and the polling firm Knowledge Networks conducted the survey with funding from major industries, including American Electric Power, Chevron Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp., Ford Motor Co., General Motors, Peabody Energy and Southern Co. The survey has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percent.