Climate is now major concern

Al Gore can pat himself on the back: A new poll conducted by the Yale Center of Environmental Law and Policy reveals that more Americans than ever now acknowledge global warming as a major concern.

The study suggests that 83 percent of Americans view global warming as a “serious” problem, a 13 percent increase since 2004. In addition, 63 percent of Americans agree that the United States is in as much danger from environmental hazards as it is from terrorists. Daniel Esty, director of the Center, said the poll’s results could change the attitudes of mainstream companies in response to public opinion.

A series of factors have contributed to changing attitudes in the American public, Esty said. For one, he believes Al Gore’s proselytizing has directly galvanized the public. Secondly, Hurricane Katrina — though its cause remains debatable — has perhaps provided “a taste of things to come.” Finally, Esty cited general frustration with the war in Iraq, which he believes extends to frustration with national dependence on fossil fuels, imported to America from many Middle Eastern countries.

The poll suggests that a substantial segment of the American public supports employing alternative energy strategies, including solar and wind power and improved energy efficiency. Esty said many Americans are also optimistic about “far flung options” for energy sources, like bio-fuels and tidal, wave and hydro power.

This public willingness to pay for alternative energy has been recognized by large companies in the “clean-tech arena,” he said. The “clean-tech arena” refers to alternative sources, energy efficiency technologies and emissions control technologies.

While these companies used to look upon environmental and climate issues as a burden, he said, they have now realized that attentiveness to these issues could help them capture a greater market share.

“This is an opportunity,” he said. “Markets that provide what society needs are going to profit.”

Esty said companies that have failed to appreciate the emergence of climate change concerns have made a strategic mistake and risk their economic futures. The Ford Motor Company — which ultimately disregarded former CEO Bill Ford’s attempt to take environmental issues seriously — is on the edge of bankruptcy, he said, while Toyota, with environmental renewal as a core element of its marketing strategy, is hitting record profits.

Kelly Levin FES ’11 said that because of the opinion shift, consumers will increasingly choose to patronize companies with environmentally friendly business initiatives. This trend, she said, could encourage other businesses to “ramp up the number of renewables that come up in the future.”

Benjamin Cashore, a professor at the Center, said he also looks forward to the results of the change in public opinion. Americans are in the midst of the third “wave” of environmentalism, he said, which could possibly be the most influential one yet.

The next step after nurturing societal attention, Cashore said, is to develop the best policies to accommodate environmental needs.

“This is the brief period of time Congress can act on an issue before the wave dissipates, ” he said. “It is critical to act now, especially in the United States system that is hard to change.”

But Esty said he thinks that private sectors, rather than the government, will do the work of developing new technologies.

“They will have more innovative solutions than the most intellectual bureaucrat in Washington, just by sheer force of numbers,” he said.

The poll, which was conducted on behalf of the Center’s the Environmental Attitudes and Behavior Project by Global Strategy Group, surveyed 1,000 adults nationwide.

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