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Project: Public Awareness of Carbon Capture and Storage: A Survey of Attitudes toward Climate Change Mitigation

Research Team: Samantha O'Keefe, Howard Herzog and David Reiner

Sponsors: Carbon Sequestration Initiative

Year: 2009

Americans on climate change: Still concerned but less supportive of major action, finds MIT survey
Nancy Stauffer, MITEI, Posted 3 February 2010

In a recent MIT survey, Americans expressed less urgency about dealing with climate change than they did three years ago—but still far more than they did six years ago.

“Despite the back-off since the 2006 survey, we’ve come a long way in public support for doing something about climate change since the first survey in 2003,” says Howard Herzog, senior research engineer in the MIT Energy Initiative. Indeed, about half the 2009 respondents believed that the United States should join an international treaty aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The new survey shows two other striking changes. For the first time there is a correlation between political party and views, with Democrats consistently ranking the climate change problem as more serious than Republications and Independents do. And there is a significant increase in people’s awareness of carbon capture and storage (CCS)—a climate-change-mitigation technology that calls for capturing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and other large sources and injecting them into geologic formations for long-term storage.

That last finding is of particular interest to Herzog and his colleagues, who have been working on CCS since the late 1980s. Indeed, they undertook the first public survey in 2003 primarily to find out what people thought about CCS. At that time, their research had demonstrated the technologic and economic promise of CCS, but public recognition and acceptance of the technology were a concern.

The group has now conducted three surveys—in September of 2003, 2006, and 2009—to find out what the public thinks about CCS in particular and climate change and environmental issues in general. Each survey included about 20 questions focusing on the environment, global warming, and a variety of climate-change-mitigation technologies.

In designing and administering the surveys, the research team collaborated with Knowledge Networks, a company that specializes in Internet-based public opinion surveys. More than 1,200 people answered each survey (with no overlap among the three groups of respondents). Samantha F. O’Keefe, an MIT graduate student in civil and environmental engineering, has been working with Herzog to analyze the 2009 survey responses.

Results from the three surveys provide insights into how public awareness, concern, and understanding have changed—or not changed—during the past six years.

Global warming continues to be ranked first in a list of 10 environmental concerns, but the environment in general still ranks near the middle of a list of 22 “most important issues facing the US today.” The economy, health care, and unemployment are the top three concerns—no doubt a reflection of the recent economic downturn and health care debate.

Several sets of responses show the recent decline in urgency about tackling climate change. For example, the fraction of people who feel that immediate action to solve global warming is necessary is now 23%—lower than in 2006 (28%) but still higher than in 2003 (17%). In terms of willingness to pay extra on their electricity bill to “solve” global warming, in 2006 people agreed to pay on average $21 more per month, but in 2009 that number dropped down to $14—roughly the value observed in the 2003 survey.

Nevertheless, 60% of the 2009 respondents said that that the federal government should be doing more to deal with global warming—a value down 10 percentage points from 2006 but still a significant fraction of the population. Moreover, almost half the people surveyed in 2009 said that the United States should join other industrialized nations in an international treaty that calls for cutting back GHG emissions from power plants and cars—even after being told that “some people say this will hurt the economy.”

“That was somewhat surprising,” says Herzog. “Even though the population has backed off a little in terms of calling for urgent action…I think there’s still popular support for doing something about climate change but probably not for taking the drastic actions that some people are calling for. The question is not so much about whether people are in favor or not in favor of taking action but more about the magnitude and the pace.”

In terms of demographic trends, the 2009 survey was the first to show a correlation between views on the severity of the global warming problem and the political party of the respondent. In the recent survey, Democrats overwhelmingly ranked climate change as either “serious” or “somewhat serious.” In contrast, Republican responses were distributed among “somewhat serious,” “uncertain,” and “concern is unwarranted,” while Independent responses were evenly spread across all choices. “It appears that the issue has become more politicized than it was in the past,” says Herzog.

Technology awareness
In the section of the survey measuring awareness of technologies related to climate change, hybrid cars and solar and wind energy continued to top the list of “what people have heard about in the past year.” But awareness of CCS increased significantly since the previous surveys. The fraction of people recognizing the term “carbon capture and sequestration” was 4% in 2003, 5% in 2006, and 17% in 2009.

Why the big increase in name recognition? “There’s been a significant increase in press coverage of CCS in the past three years,” says Herzog. “It’s been talked about in congressional bills, and even the US president has mentioned the technology.” Interestingly, better-educated and wealthier people were more likely than others to have heard of CCS. Indeed, respondents earning $100,000 per year were four times more likely to have heard of CCS than those making less than $25,000.

But respondents still were not ready to accept CCS as a viable option for addressing climate change. Asked if they would include CCS in a climate change plan, about 25% of the people responded favorably and about 25% opposed, but fully 50% were not sure. That response is consistent with another question in which many respondents were not sure which environmental concerns CCS would address. Despite the increased name recognition, many people are still unclear about the details of CCS.

Herzog is pleased with the increased recognition of CCS. He stresses that the climate change problem “is not going to go away,” so research should continue on technologies such as CCS. “I think more and more people see it as a technology that’s going to be important in the longer term,” he says. “And we’re getting increasing numbers of e-mails and other inquiries from a broad spectrum of sources, from educational institutions to industry to governmental officials, all wanting to know more about it.”

This research was supported by the MIT Carbon Sequestration Initiative.

Field Report of the Carbon Sequestration Survey, (2009). <PDF>

O'Keefe, S. and H.J. Herzog, Survey Methodology, (2009). <PDF>

O'Keefe, S. and H.J. Herzog, Trends in Public Attitudes on Global Warming Key Findings, (2009). <PDF>

O'Keefe, S. and H.J. Herzog, Questionnaire: Graphic Summary, (2009). <PDF>