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Most Americans Undaunted by Global Warming

Earthrise from moon, JAXA
Earthrise from moon, as seen by JAXA probe. (Image credit: JAXA, CC BY-NC-ND.)

Although most Americans believe global warming's effects will take hold during their lifetime, they don't expect these changes to pose a serious threat to their way of life, according to a new poll.

A Gallup survey found that 54 percent of Americans believe global warming is already impacting the planet; another 3 percent think these effects will occur in a few years and 8 percent think these effects will occur in their lifetime. Meanwhile, 16 percent think global warming's effects will happen sometime after they die, and 18 percent don't expect these effects to ever take hold.

But the way the public perceives the reality of global warming seems to be somewhat disconnected from how they perceive the threat of a warming world. Just 36 percent of people in the United States think global warming will eventually disrupt their way of life, they survey found. [6 Unexpected Effects of Climate Change]

That 36 percent, however, is still a bigger share than the 25 percent of people in the country who saw global warming as a threat to their lifestyle in 1997, when Gallup officials first started asking the American public about climate change.

Meanwhile, belief in the effects of global warming seems to be stuck in the 1990s. In 1997, Gallup found that 65 percent (the same as this year) thought global warming's effects were already happening or would happen during their lifetime.

As climate has become a politically contentious issue, it's perhaps unsurprising that views vary greatly by party affiliation.

Among Democrats, 83 percent think the effects of global warming either have already begun or will begin in their lifetime. That's nearly double the 42 percent of Republicans who believe the same. And while 56 percent of Democrats think global warming will threaten their way of life, Republicans are largely undaunted, with only 19 percent considering their lifestyle at risk from a warming world.

Age also affected how people saw the effects of a changing climate. Among Americans ages 18 to 29, Gallup found that 78 percent thought the effects of global warming were already occurring or would occur during their lifetime. Just 47 percent of seniors (those 65 and over) said the same.

Gallup officials say their poll's results could explain why Americans don't politically prioritize environmental issues; instead, their top concerns are issues that will affect them immediately, like the economy and health care.

Short-term weather (as opposed to long-term climate) is something that can affect Americans immediately and it's been known to sway climate beliefs. Studies and polls have shown that when it's unusually hot, the public is more prone to accept the reality of global warming. But when it's cold outside, their climate concerns melt away.

A recent study in the journal Nature Climate Change found that local weather tends to create a priming effect for concerns about global warming, even when people are educated about the difference between weather, which includes storms and single events, and climate, which describes patterns that occur over long periods, such as decades, centuries or millennia.

The new results are part of Gallup's annual environment poll, conducted March 6-9 through phone interviews with a random sample of 1,048 adults from all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

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Megan Gannon
Megan Gannon
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.