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American Attitudes Towards the Environment - 2004-06-10

As Americans gear up for a summer of campaign politics ahead of the November 2004 presidential election, polls indicate voters are mainly concerned with the U.S. economy and jobs along with war in Iraq. But a Hollywood movie has many Americans talking about global warming and the environment. A new poll by Yale University shows American voters are worried about the country’s environmental health. VOA’s Serena Parker has more.

One of the top summer movies in the United States is The Day After Tomorrow, a Hollywood blockbuster about an abrupt change in the earth’s climate that causes a series of cataclysmic events, including a new ice age that puts much of the northern hemisphere in a deep freeze.

Full of special effects, the film is short on hard science, but that hasn’t stopped a broad coalition of environmental groups, concerned scientists and liberal political organizations from using the movie to criticize the Bush Administration’s response to global warming.

Katherine Morrison, a staff attorney at U.S. PIRG, a non-profit, public interest advocacy group, says her group distributed flyers in cities across the United States to people coming out of screenings of the disaster film.

“We wanted to try to give people a sense about how global warming happens,” she says. “The fact that we are causing it by burning fossil fuels and that we also have the solutions because we are causing it and that we know what to do to stop it. And people seemed generally receptive about it and wanted to know what they could do.”

According to Dan Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, it doesn’t take Hollywood exaggeration to get people to care.

“All the Hollywood hype surrounding The Day After Tomorrow really isn’t necessary to get people to focus on this issue,” he says. “We see a very strong majority of 55% saying the science is in on this issue, no hype required, and it’s time to take action to address the build-up of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.”

Because of concerns about global warming and other issues, American voters want to hear more about the environment from the presidential candidates. Dan Esty says the recent poll by Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies indicates that 84% of American voters say the environment will be a factor in their vote in November -- a concern that cuts across party lines.

“What it looks to us is that the environment is going to be a major factor for some number of voters,” he says, “particularly younger voters who seem especially focused on this issue, and will be, if not a major, than a minor factor for a large majority of Americans. So whether people are Democrats or Republicans or Independents it appears that the environment is part of what’s on their mind as they look at candidates.”

Others disagree about the importance American voters give to environmental concerns like global warming. Patrick Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian research organization in Washington. Yes, the planet is warmer now than it was in the middle of the 19th century and yes, some of that is attributable to human activity. But that rate of warming is modest, he says, and people have adapted and even prospered.

“As the planet warmed in the last 100 years, in the industrialized countries life span doubled and some crop yields quintupled,” he says. “And while global warming didn’t cause those things, it certainly did not prevent them.”

Patrick Michaels says that as the planet warms another degree or two Celsius over the next 100 years, humans will adjust. Thus, concerns about global warming are overblown. “And it’s interesting that Americans tend to agree with that,” he says. “When asked by the Gallup polling organization, which is very highly respected, a plurality of respondents say the media is generally exaggerating the issue of global warming.”

While there is skepticism about the impact of global warming, a recent Gallup Poll reports that a majority of Americans consider it genuine. When asked what should be done to combat the problem, however, the Gallup survey indicates Americans are wary of the Kyoto Protocol, the global climate agreement that requires major industrialized countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to below 1990 levels. European Union countries, Japan, Canada, China and Brazil have ratified it, but President Bush withdrew from the treaty in 2001 on the grounds it would hurt the U.S. economy. He also objects to the fact that large developing nations like China and India are exempt from the mandatory cuts in emissions.

The Yale survey also documents Americans’ concerns about sacrificing economic growth for the environment. When forced to choose between protecting the environment and maintaining a strong economy a majority of Americans choose to keep the economy growing.