Virginians' Attitudes About Global Warming Hinge on Local Weather

October 22, 2008 — Three out of four Virginians believe there is "solid evidence" of global warming over the past 40 years, according to the first survey of Virginians’ attitudes toward climate change, presented Tuesday at the University of Virginia's Miller Center for Public Affairs.

The telephone survey of 660 Virginia residents, conducted in September, found that attitudes in Virginia toward the big questions of climate change — Is it happening? Is it caused by human activity? — are similar to national attitudes, according to previous surveys from the Pew Research Center and elsewhere.

But this survey broke new ground in asking more detailed questions about why people believe or disbelieve that global warming is happening, according to the survey's authors: Barry Rabe, Miller Center visiting scholar from the University of Michigan, and Christopher Borick, director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College.

The survey asked Virginians to identify the primary factor underlying their beliefs about climate change. Among the 75 percent of Virginians who do believe the earth is warming, one in four cited personal experience as the top reason. The next most popular reasons were melting glaciers and polar ice (21 percent), media coverage (14 percent) and changing weather patterns or strong storms (13 percent) — another type of personal experience of the weather.

Among the 13 percent of Virginians who do not believe the Earth is warming, the top reason given was also personal experience of the weather, suggesting that weather is in the eye of the beholder.

Tied for the top answer among Virginia's global warming disbelievers was the notion that natural patterns explain any fluctuations in temperature.

Twelve percent of Virginians are undecided about global warming.

The survey also asked respondents to rank the relative importance of some commonly cited factors for climate change. Among those who believe in global warming, declining glaciers and polar ice was the factor that most influenced Virginians, with nearly 90 percent saying it had a very large or somewhat large effect on their view.

Other factors that had a very large or somewhat large effect on global warming belief were warmer local temperatures (74 percent), the strength of hurricanes hitting the U.S. (76 percent), milder local winters (78 percent) and severe droughts in areas across the U.S. (80 percent).

The Report of the Virginia Climate Change Survey is part of a larger national survey of nearly 2,000 people, with concentrations in California, Mississippi and Pennsylvania, that will be presented at the Miller Center's National Conference on Climate Governance Dec. 11 and 12, 2008. 

In an interview after the forum, Rabe and Borick discussed other preliminary findings from the larger national survey that demonstrate how attitudes of residents in different regions are impacted by locally observable impacts of climate change.

For instance, residents of Mississippi were much more likely than the national average to cite strong hurricanes as a significant factor in their belief in global warming, while Californians were more likely to cite severe droughts.

These survey results are in line with other anecdotal evidence, Rabe said. For instance, residents of New England have discussed climate change in light of the possibility that rising temperatures may lead to the demise of the area's beloved maple trees. Citizens of British Columbia have taken up the issue in response to the destruction of forests because many winters are no longer cold enough to kill the mountain pine beetle.

Virginians' attitudes on climate change did not differ significantly according to race, age, education or gender. Partisan affiliation was the only factor that had a notable impact on attitudes. Among Democrats, 88 percent believe that global warming is real, while only 3 percent do not. In contrast, 57 percent of Republicans believe global warming is real, while 24 percent do not.

Among those who said they believe global warming is occurring, 39 percent believe it's caused by human activity, and nearly 90 percent say it's either a very serious or somewhat serious problem. Nearly three-quarters of global warming believers said that immediate government intervention is necessary.

A growing number of states, not waiting for stronger federal action, have taken steps to curb their own greenhouse gas emissions, Rabe said.

Twenty-seven states require increases in the percentage of their electricity that comes from renewable sources; 21 states are involved in developing carbon cap-and-trade programs, and 14 states have joined California's attempts to impose tougher regulations on vehicle emissions.

In line with the growing role of states, Virginians have a widespread perception that federal, state and local governments share responsibility for taking actions to reduce global warming.

The survey also examined attitudes toward particular policy options to address global warming. Virginians voiced the most support for clean coal technology (82 percent) and for adopting a requirement that some percentage of electricity be generated from renewable sources (82 percent). The next most popular measures were requirements for more fuel-efficient vehicles and more energy-efficient buildings, along with tax rebates for hybrid vehicle purchases.

There were regional variations in attitudes toward policy options. Residents of the state's most heavily congested areas — Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads — more strongly supported restrictions on suburban development.

More than half of Commonwealth residents expressed strong opposition to increasing gasoline taxes, and 37 percent strongly opposed increasing fossil fuel taxes.

That finding was similar to national attitudes, Rabe said. Virginians "are willing to pay something, but not a lot" for reducing emissions.

-- By Brevy Cannon