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Global Warming? Not in My Backyard

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Despite mounting scientific evidence, the prospect of global climate change is not a big concern for many Americans. the April 7th Gallup Poll indicated that while 62 percent worry about global warming, only 36 percent think it will be a big deal during their lifetimes. What explains this? Why do so many Americans remain sanguine?

The Gallup poll provides some insight. First, it notes that whether or not you are concerned about global warming depends upon your Party affiliation. The pollsters found that 77 percent of Democrats worried about global warming versus 45 percent of Republicans. In an increasingly polarized society, Democrats and Republicans see things quite differently. This is true on most issues: Iraq, where 72 percent of Republicans think the US "will win" versus 29 percent of Dems, and the economy, where 60 percent of Republicans think economic conditions are "good or excellent" versus 20 percent of Dems. The mood of GOP adherents is remarkably different from that of those who support the minority Party. Sixty percent of Republicans are satisfied with the direction of the country versus just nine percent of Democrats.

This polarization may not make sense, but it does follow a certain logic: If you trust George W. Bush, then you accept his view of things. The President doesn't think that global warming is a big deal. Therefore, his supporters""about one-third of the electorate if you believe the latest polls""go along with his perspective. "George is our shepherd, I shall not worry."

The fascinating question is why more of the rest of us, those who aren't Bush supporters, aren't agitated about Global Warming. It's easy to write off Republicans as mindless lemmings. But, why do so many otherwise rational Democrats and Independents disregard the dire warnings about global climate change? The answer seems to be that they can't deal with global warming in the abstract. And, so far, they don't believe it's impacting where they live.

The April 7th Gallup Poll contained some interesting data on this variation of NIMBY. It shows that among the top ten "specific environmental concerns," global warming ranks eighth; only 36 percent of Americans worry about global warming a great deal. However, 54 percent worry about "pollution of drinking water." In fact, what most Americans worry about are tangible environmental problems that show up in their neighborhoods: drinking water, contamination of soil by toxic waste, pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, fresh water for household needs, and air pollution. In other words, where Americans see tangible evidence of environmental problems, they respond. Problems like damage to the earth's ozone layer, extinction of animal species, acid rain, and global warming remain too abstract for most folks.

The Gallup results are similar to those reported by Time Magazine and ABC News on March 26th. However, the Time/ABC poll asked an interesting question that Gallup didn't ask: do you think global warming is affecting your weather? "Just over half of Americans (52%) say weather patterns in the county where they live have grown more unstable in the last three years and half (50%) feel that average temperatures have risen in their county." In other words, Americans are beginning to worry about the relationship between global climate change and the weather they experience.

What's maddening about these polls is that they don't show the relationship between where the respondents live""for example, if they live on the Gulf Coast""and their perceptions of global warming. Obviously, it makes sense for an American who lives in Berkeley, where the weather hasn't changed all that much in the last three years, to see global warming differently than does someone who lives in Central Florida or New Orleans. If you had a dramatic weather "event," in your backyard, then you would be expected to take global climate change more seriously than someone who hadn't experienced a hurricane, tornado, or prolonged drought.

So what difference does this make? It may not make a lot of difference on the Federal level as long as Republicans run the show. The most recent Gallup poll looking at "America's top problems" found that concern about the "environment/pollution" was down at the noise level, one percent, compared to Iraq, the economy, and corruption in government. Nonetheless, more and more Americans are concerned about the environment""if not global warming, in specific""and 62 percent feel that the Feds are doing "too little" to protect the environment.

What these polls do indicate is that the environment in general, and global warming in particular, are potent issues at the local level. They generate interest wherever American see pollution or radical weather change in their own backyard. Apparently, the rest of us can't be bothered, because we have too many other problems to worry about.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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