Although a majority of Americans believe the seriousness of global warming is either correctly portrayed in the news or underestimated, a record-high 41% now say it is exaggerated. This represents the highest level of public skepticism about mainstream reporting on global warming seen in more than a decade of Gallup polling on the subject.

As recently as 2006, significantly more Americans thought the news underestimated the seriousness of global warming than said it exaggerated it, 38% vs. 30%. Now, according to Gallup’s 2009 Environment survey, more Americans say the problem is exaggerated rather than underestimated, 41% vs. 28%.

The trend in the “exaggerated” response has been somewhat volatile since 2001, and the previous high point, 38%, came in 2004. Over the next two years, “exaggerated” sentiment fell to 31% and 30%. Still, as noted, the current 41% is the highest since Gallup’s trend on this measure began in 1997.

Since 1997, Republicans have grown increasingly likely to believe media coverage of global warming is exaggerated, and that trend continues in the 2009 survey; however, this year marks a relatively sharp increase among independents as well. In just the past year, Republican doubters grew from 59% to 66%, and independents from 33% to 44%, while the rate among Democrats remained close to 20%.

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Notably, all of the past year’s uptick in cynicism about the seriousness of global warming coverage occurred among Americans 30 and older. The views of 18- to 29-year-olds, the age group generally most concerned about global warming and most likely to say the problem is underestimated, didn’t change.

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Dampened Concern

Apart from these findings about news coverage of global warming, the March 5-8 poll shows in a similar vein that Americans are a bit less concerned about the seriousness of global warming per se than they have been in recent years.

Six in 10 Americans indicate that they are highly worried about global warming, including 34% who are worried “a great deal” and 26% “a fair amount.” Overall worry is similar to points at the start of the decade, but is down from 66% a year ago and from 65% in 2007.

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The 2009 Gallup Environment survey measured public concern about eight specific environmental issues. Not only does global warming rank last on the basis of the total percentage concerned either a great deal or a fair amount, but it is the only issue for which public concern dropped significantly in the past year.

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Also, compared with last year, fewer Americans believe the effects of global warming have begun to occur. The figure is now 53%, down from 61% in March 2008. At the same time, a record-high 16% say the effects will never occur. (Prior to now, Gallup polling found no more than 11% of Americans saying the effects of global warming would never happen.)

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Most Doubt Warming Is a “Serious Threat”

Altogether, 68% of U.S. adults believe the effects of global warming will be manifest at some point in their lifetimes, indicating the public largely believes the problem is real. However, only 38% of Americans, similar to the 40% found in 2008, believe it will pose “a serious threat” to themselves or their own way of life.

This fear that global warming will pose a serious threat in one’s lifetime steadily expanded from 25% in 1997 to 40% in 2008. The drop this year to 38% is not statistically significant; however, it is the first time since 1997 that the rate of concern has not increased.

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Bottom Line

Americans generally believe global warming is real. That sets the U.S. public apart from the global-warming skeptics who assembled this week in New York City to try to debunk the science behind climate change. At the same time, with only 34% of Americans saying they worry “a great deal” about the problem, most Americans do not view the issue in the same dire terms as the many prominent leaders advancing global warming as an issue.

Importantly, Gallup’s annual March update on the environment shows a drop in public concern about global warming across several different measures, suggesting that the global warming message may have lost some footing with Americans over the past year. Gallup has documented declines in public concern about the environment at times when other issues, such as a major economic downturn or a national crisis like 9/11, absorbed Americans’ attention. To some extent that may be true today, given the troubling state of the U.S. economy. However, the solitary drop in concern this year about global warming, among the eight specific environmental issues Gallup tested, suggests that something unique may be happening with the issue.

Certainly global warming has received tremendous attention this decade, including with Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” It is not clear whether the troubled economy has drawn attention away from the global warming message or whether other factors are at work. It will be important to see whether the 2009 findings hold up in next year’s update of the annual environmental survey.

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© 2009, Tracey de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Tracey de Morsella (323 Articles)

Tracey de Morsella started her career working as an editor for US Technology Magazine. She used that experience to launch Delaware Valley Network, a publication for professionals in the Greater Philadelphia area. Years later, she used the contacts and resources she acquired to work in executive search specializing in technical and diversity recruitment. She has conducted recruitment training seminars for Wachovia Bank, the Department of Interior and the US Postal Service. During this time, she also created a diversity portal called The Multicultural Advantage and published the Diversity Recruitment Advertising Toolkit, a directory of recruiting resources for human resources professionals. Her career and recruitment articles have appeared in numerous publications and web portals including Woman Engineer Magazine, Monster.com, About.com Job Search Channel, Workplace Diversity Magazine, Society for Human Resource Management web site, NSBE Engineering Magazine, HR.com, and Human Resource Consultants Association Newsletter. Her work with technology professionals drew her to pursuing training and work in web development, which led to a stint at Merrill Lynch as an Intranet Manager. In March, she decided to combine her technical and career management expertise with her passion for the environment, and with her husband, launched The Green Economy Post, a blog providing green career information and covering the impact of the environment, sustainable building, cleantech and renewable energy on the US economy. Her sustainability articles have appeared on Industrial Maintenance & Plant Operation, Chem.Info,FastCompany and CleanTechies.