June 26th, 2013
09:31 AM ET

Obama ahead of U.S. public on climate change

By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are his own.

The Obama administration is stepping up its game in dealing with climate change. In his June 19 speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, President Barack Obama said that “the effort to slow climate change requires bold action.” On Tuesday, in a speech at Georgetown University, Obama called for the United States to “lead the world in a coordinated assault on a changing climate.” And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will issue regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants.

Such moves echo widespread public concern about global warming outside the United States, according to a recent poll of 39 countries by the Pew Research Center. But they do not reflect the priorities of the American people, who are, on a per capita basis, among the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Nor do they reflect the concerns of the Chinese, whose country is the world’s most significant source of carbon dioxide, methane and other emissions.

Publics all around the world are particularly worried about climate change, with a median of 54 percent of those surveyed citing this as a major threat to their countries. Other prominent concerns include fears about international financial instability (52 percent) and Islamic extremist groups (49 percent). As might be expected, these apprehensions differ by region and by country. But at a time of turmoil in the Middle East and a slow recovery from the Great Recession in many parts of the world – both immediate challenges – general public anxiety about climate change, a long-term concern, is strong.

More from CNN: How to fight climate change

Climate worries are particularly prevalent in Latin America, where two-thirds are concerned, as well as the Asia/Pacific (56 percent), Europe (54 percent) and sub-Saharan Africa (54 percent). Indeed, global warming is among the most important threat cited by publics in the seven countries surveyed in Latin America, in five of the eight nations in the Asia/Pacific and three of the six publics surveyed in Africa. Greeks were most concerned, with 87 percent listing the issue as a worry, followed by 85 percent of South Koreans and three quarters of Brazilians.

In contrast, Americans and Chinese are among the least apprehensive about climate change. Just 40 percent of Americans say global warming poses a major threat to the United States, a virtually identical number to those saying so in China.

Of course, climate change is not the global public’s only worry. The survey also found that at least half of those polled in eight European nations, as well as in many Middle Eastern and African countries, consider international financial instability a major threat. This is especially the case in those nations hard hit by the euro crisis. In the southern European nations of Greece (95 percent), Italy (75 percent) and Spain (70 percent) clear majorities of the public expressed concern that financial turmoil could harm their societies.

In addition, majorities in the United States, as well as in many European and African countries, consider Islamic extremist groups a major threat, with concern in Europe being especially acute in France, Spain, Germany and Britain. Americans and Europeans, meanwhile, also express concern about Iran’s nuclear program, while North Korea’s nuclear ambitions also trouble Americans, with 59 percent saying this poses a major threat to the United States.

It’s true that the Obama administration’s new initiatives on climate change respond to a groundswell of public concern around the world about the future effects of global warming.

“When I spoke to young people in Turkey a few years ago, the first question I got wasn’t about the challenges that part of the world faces,” Obama said Tuesday. “It was about the climate challenge that we all face – and America’s role in addressing it.”

But the reality is that the president’s recent announcements do not reflect the concerns of either the American or the Chinese people, the two most significant emitters of greenhouse gases. If global warming is to be slowed, it is those publics that need to see climate change as a major threat to their societies. Today, they do not.

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Topics: Climate • Environment • United States

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soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. BrooklynChickLovesLiberty

    Man made global warming / "climate change" is nonsense wrapped in Bull$#!t

    CO2 is plant food.

    June 26, 2013 at 11:27 am | Reply
    • Brian in MA

      More importantly, CO2 is what corals and shellfish use to make their shells/exoskeletons. CO2 is very water soluble and equilibrates into the oceans in a ratio of 50:1, rendering the IPCCs calculation of CO2 use by photosynthesis pointless.

      June 26, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Reply
      • Scott S.

        It is definitely true that not all of the CO2 emitted by human industrial activities remains in the atmosphere. Between 25% and 50% of these emissions over the industrial period have been absorbed by the world’s oceans, preventing atmospheric CO2 buildup from being much, much worse.

        But this atmospheric benefit comes at a considerable price.

        As ocean waters absorb CO2 they become more acidic. This does not mean the oceans will become acid. Ocean life can be sensitive to slight changes in pH levels, and any drop in pH is an increase in acidity, even in an alkaline environment.

        The acidity of global surface waters has increased by 30% in just the last 200 years. This rate of acidification is projected through the end of the century to accelerate even further with potentially catastrophic impacts to marine ecosystems.

        Endorsed by seventy academies of science from around the world, a June 2009 statement from the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues (IAP) stated the following.

        "The current rate of change is much more rapid than during any event over the last 65 million years. These changes in ocean chemistry are irreversible for many thousands of years, and the biological consequences could last much longer."
        – The InterAcademy Panel, June 1, 2009

        As surface waters become more acidic, it becomes more difficult for marine life like corals and shellfish to form the hard shells necessary for their survival, and coral reefs provide a home for more than 25% of all oceanic species. Tiny creatures called pteropods located at the base of many oceanic food chains can also be seriously impacted. The degradation of these species at the foundation of marine ecosystems could lead to the collapse of these environments with devastating implications to millions of people in the human populations that rely on them.

        The IAP also stated that, if atmospheric CO2 were to reach 550 parts per million (ppm) along its current rapid ascent from its pre-industrial level of 280 ppm, coral reefs around the globe could be dissolving.
        Source: http://www.skepticalscience.com/ocean-acidification-global-warming.htm

        June 27, 2013 at 2:50 am |
    • alpha2actual

      It irks me when people conflate Anthropogenic Climate Change with Climate Change and Anthropogenic Global Warming with Global Warming. Climate Change is studied by Paleoclimatologists who work with ice and ocean sediment cores. They are interested in time frames of tens and hundreds of thousands of years and geological epochs. For instance, the climate record shows that there have been 5 interglacial (warm) and 4 glacial (cold) episodes during the current 400,000 record. We are obviously enjoying an interglacial event but 12,000 years from now all of Canada and 40% of the United States including Manhattan, thankfully, will be under 5,000 feet of ice. It is undoubtedly true that 99% of scientists believe in Climate Change however to state as fact that 99% believe in Anthropogenic Climate Change is both absurd and a statistical improbability. The climate record also shows that global temperature increases precede attending increases in atmospheric CO2 by periods ranging from 400 to 1400 years. QED

      June 27, 2013 at 1:10 am | Reply
      • Scott S.

        Actually, 97 percent of top climate scientists and every major National Academy of Science agree that man-made pollution is warming our climate. Here’s how they know. First, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased about 40 percent since humans started burning dirty energy like coal. Second, the carbon from dirty energy has a unique chemical signature that differentiates it from other sources of carbon — so we can confirm that it's coming from us. Third, we know it is carbon — not natural forces like the sun — that's responsible for the recent increase in global temperatures. Why? The lower level of the atmosphere is warming, while the middle layer is cooling. If the sun were responsible for most of the recent temperature change on Earth, both layers of the atmosphere would be warming. The evidence is inescapable: Humans ARE changing our climate.

        Source: https://realitydrop.org/#myths/19

        Regarding going into another ice age:

        According to ice cores from Antarctica, the past 400,000 years have been dominated by glacials, also known as ice ages, that last about 100,000. These glacials have been punctuated by interglacials, short warm periods which typically last 11,500 years. Because our current interglacial (the Holocene) has already lasted approximately 12,000 years, it has led some to claim that a new ice age is imminent. Is this a valid claim?

        To answer this question, it is necessary to understand what has caused the shifts between ice ages and interglacials during this period. The cycle appears to be a response to changes in the Earth’s orbit and tilt, which affect the amount of summer sunlight reaching the northern hemisphere. When this amount declines, the rate of summer melt declines and the ice sheets begin to grow. In turn, this increases the amount of sunlight reflected back into space, increasing (or amplifying) the cooling trend. Eventually a new ice age emerges and lasts for about 100,000 years.

        So what are today’s conditions like? Changes in both the orbit and tilt of the Earth do indeed indicate that the Earth should be cooling. However, two reasons explain why an ice age is unlikely:

        These two factors, orbit and tilt, are weak and are not acting within the same timescale – they are out of phase by about 10,000 years. This means that their combined effect would probably be too weak to trigger an ice age. You have to go back 430,000 years to find an interglacial with similar conditions, and this interglacial lasted about 30,000 years.
        The warming effect from CO2 and other greenhouse gases is greater than the cooling effect expected from natural factors. Without human interference, the Earth’s orbit and tilt, a slight decline in solar output since the 1950s and volcanic activity would have led to global cooling. Yet global temperatures are definitely on the rise.
        It can therefore be concluded that with CO2 concentrations set to continue to rise, a return to ice age conditions seems very unlikely. Instead, temperatures are increasing and this increase may come at a considerable cost with few or no benefits.

        Source: http://www.skepticalscience.com/heading-into-new-little-ice-age.htm

        June 27, 2013 at 2:40 am |
  2. Ray

    CO2 is not a pollutant and the EPA regulating it is silly. WHY is no one reporting about the current lull in global warming reported by the New York Times on June 10???? It's obvious the current models being used to predict the future are not taking into account all the elements that contribute to climate but this is being ignored by the media completely.

    June 26, 2013 at 11:37 am | Reply
  3. Harry Taft

    A strong political narrative, once put in place, will remain long after having been shown to be fallacious. Low information types digest and retain what is presented to them as irrefutable. A nonsense term like "scientific consensus" causes them no problem when used. The heart of science is objectivity borne out by replication. Consensus describes a majority opinion, which is purely subjective. The term is an oxymoron (like government intelligence, jumbo shrimp,et al). In a world where critical thinking skills are possessed by only a few, the demagogues rule. AGW or Climate Change will not go easily unless it snows in New York City...in August.

    June 26, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  4. tdehoff

    The stat about only 40% of Americans are worried about Global Climate change caused by man is an indication that there is hope yet for America. CO2 is a natural result of each and every one of us living. To quote the great liberal Hillary Clinton "what difference does it make" if it comes out of my lungs or the tailpipe of a vehicle/smokestack the effects are the same regardless of the source. Amazing how we hear about the artic ice cap melting while hearing nothing about the Antartic Ice cap growing. Man Made Climate change is the world's greatest con job. Billions are being wasted and lives destroyed over a mirage.

    June 26, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Reply
    • Danram

      What always me laugh out loud is when some leftist loon ... like our president .... calls carbon dioxide a "pollutant". It is nothing of the kind. It is an absolutely indispensable part of our planet's eco-system. It's what plants breathe. It's what they use to produce the oxygen that we breathe and most of the carbohydrates that we eat.

      One thing that the warmist nuts always conveniently overlook is the natural inhibitory mechanisms that are in place tpo prevent runaway CO2 levels. If CO2 rises and the planet gets wetter and warmer as a result, what do we get? A fifth grader can tell you. We get more plants, more plants that then take more CO2 out of the atmosphere. Professional horticulturists routinely double or even triple the CO2 content inside their greenhouses because their plants absolutely LOVE the stuff!

      In fact, a very plausible argument can be made that an overall warming of the Earth by 1-2 degrees Celsius might actually be a good thing on balance. Millions upon millions of acres of land that are now non-arable might then be able to be farmed effectively while millions more might enjoy longer growing seasons.

      June 26, 2013 at 10:03 pm | Reply
  5. BooBoo

    I am glad that the "Majority" of the World Citizens are knowledgeable enough in the numerous scientific disciplines to make an accurate evaluation of the existence, causes and remedies of Global Warming--These are mostly the same people who re Elected BHO, right?

    June 26, 2013 at 5:10 pm | Reply
  6. Emerald

    What a hacky and water-carrying headline. Of course, it's CNN.

    June 26, 2013 at 5:59 pm | Reply
    • valleyforge

      RCP had a more appropriate headline: "Obama At Odds with Public on Global Warming".

      June 26, 2013 at 8:02 pm | Reply
  7. StillNotBuyingO

    This just in! Obama smart, people who disagree with him dumb!!! Thanks for clarifying that CNN!!!!

    June 26, 2013 at 6:30 pm | Reply
  8. robnbc

    I am disapointed that CNN is not covering the Obama speech on controling carbon emissions. I would expect that from Fox News but the issue of acastrophic climate change is not going away by ignoring or denying it. It will be our children and grandchildren who pay the price of ignorance and obstructionism. CNN could do better here than Fox.

    June 26, 2013 at 6:32 pm | Reply
  9. xsnake

    As the former cofounder of Grean Peace said.....global warming is short on science and long on politics.

    June 26, 2013 at 7:16 pm | Reply
  10. valleyforge

    "if global warming is to be slowed..."

    Well, it already slowed, and stopped. For the last fifteen years. I guess Obama gets another Nobel prize for taking care of that.

    June 26, 2013 at 8:00 pm | Reply
    • Scott S.

      Well, it certainly hasn't been cooling since 1998. Even if we ignore long term trends and just look at the record-breakers, that wasn't the hottest year ever. Different reports show that, overall, 2005 was hotter than 1998. What's more, globally, the hottest 12-month period ever recorded was from June 2009 to May 2010.

      Though humans love record-breakers, they don't, on their own, tell us a much about trends - and it's trends that matter when monitoring Climate Change. Trends only appear by looking at all the data, globally, and taking into account other variables - like the effects of the El Nino ocean current or sunspot activity - not by cherry-picking single points.

      There's also a tendency for some people just to concentrate on air temperatures when there are other, more useful, indicators that can perhaps give us a better idea how rapidly the world is warming. Oceans for instance - due to their immense size and heat storing capability (called 'thermal mass') - tend to give a much more 'steady' indication of the warming that is happening. Here records show that the Earth has been warming at a steady rate before and since 1998 and there's no signs of it slowing any time soon.

      Source (and more information and graphs): http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-stopped-in-1998.htm

      June 27, 2013 at 2:45 am | Reply
  11. Danram

    Actually, Bruce, you have it totally backwards. It's the public that's ahead of Obama on climate change.

    The public ... a clear majority of it anyway ... has figured out that the whole thing was and is a massive con job.

    For one thing, the planet isn't getting any warmer. But even if it were, it wouldn't be because of a miniscule increase in the amount of an atmospheric trace gas that only accounts for 4/100ths of 1 percent of the atmosphere to begin with.

    June 26, 2013 at 9:56 pm | Reply
  12. marion

    I disagree that the President is ahead of the US public on climate change. EVERYONE I know is concerned about it–well, except one person–and I know a lot of people.

    June 27, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Reply
  13. Leftcoastrocky

    According to the Houston Chronicle Texas leads the U.S. in greenhouse gas emissions.
    "Texas' coal-fired power plants and oil refineries generated 294 million tons of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in 2010, more than the next two states - Pennsylvania and Florida - combined."

    June 28, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Reply
  14. interiorstylessite

    It is a shame that President Obama can not do much at this point. The views can be divided. No one is 100% right. An interesting article that caught my attention. I recommend this site.

    February 28, 2018 at 8:55 am | Reply

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