APRIL 14, 2011

New poll suggests belief in global warming is high but sense of concern is low among Massachusetts residents

About three quarters of Massachusetts residents say global warming is happening and more than half also say it is caused by human activity, but there is little sense of concern to address the problem, according to a new survey released today by MassINC and The MassINC Polling Group. The Barr Foundation sponsored study, entitled “The 80 Percent Challenge: A Survey of Climate Change Opinion and Action in Massachusetts,” also indicates that Bay State residents do not see efforts to address global warming as incompatible with economic growth and would even pay more for renewable energy.

The new poll, which surveyed 1,311 adults throughout Massachusetts, could inform efforts to reach the state’s carbon emission reduction target established by The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008. The law placed Massachusetts at the leading edge of US global warming policy by mandating an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by the year 2050 – a target considered aggressive yet attainable. 

“In order to meet the goals of the new law, there will need to be a far greater sense of concern on the part of Massachusetts residents,” said Ben Forman, Research Director at MassINC. “What is needed in Massachusetts is a real culture of climate protection that fosters action cross all sectors of our Commonwealth.”

“This study provides a benchmark from which we can track people’s opinions on these issues.  There are certain numbers, like the percentage who think global warming is a very serious problem, which will be key to gauging the effectiveness of efforts to engage the public,” said Steve Koczela, President of the MassINC Polling Group.

On awareness of the problem, 77 percent of those surveyed say global warming has probably been happening, yet only 33 percent see it as real, caused at least partially by human activity, and a “very serious” problem if left unaddressed. 

The report groups residents by the degree to which they 1) believe that global warming is occurring; 2) believe it is at least partially caused by humans; and 3) believe it is a very serious threat.  On that scale: 33 percent of all surveyed are “convinced” (believe it is happening, caused at least partially by human activity, and very serious); 26 percent of residents are “receptive” (believe it is real, caused at least partially by human activity, but less than a very serious threat); 24 percent of residents are “dubious” (either unsure global warming is real or believe it is driven by natural causes); and 17 percent are “dismissive” (do not believe it is real). 

The data show significant differences in belief based on demographics with more awareness and concern exhibited among Democrats, minority groups, the young, and less wealthy residents. 

For example:

  • More than three-quarters (76 percent) of residents between ages 18 and 29 think global warming is real and at least partially the result of human activity, compared to just 43 percent of residents age 60 and over.
  • About seven in ten (69 percent) of Latinos and 56 percent of African Americans say global warming will be a “very serious” problem if left unaddressed, versus 40 percent of white respondents.
  • Forty-two percent of Democrats see global warming as a high priority for state leaders versus just 12 percent of Republicans; a majority of Republicans in Massachusetts believe global warming is either not happening (33 percent), or is happening due to natural causes (24 percent).
  • Only a third of residents with annual incomes above $100,000 say it will be a very serious problem for Massachusetts if left unaddressed, compared to half (49 percent) of residents with income between $50,000 and $100,000 annually.

The report did unearth a number of positives for policymakers hoping to make the fight against global warming a way of life for Massachusetts residents. According to the survey, while global warming rates last on a list of issues considered of high long-term priority for the state legislature, 56 percent of residents said the federal government should do a lot more in this area, and 47 percent believe state government should do a lot more. Survey results also show most residents think working to address global warming will either help the state economy (53 percent) or have no effect on it (23 percent); just 16 percent say such actions would hurt the economy.

“Residents do not perceive economic development as being in conflict with addressing global warming and they want all parties involved, including federal and state government, to do more on the issue,” said Koczela. “These are good signs for those hoping to encourage more collective action on this issue.” 

Renewable energy, one of Massachusetts’ key growth industries, generates strong support across the spectrum.  Eight in ten residents would be willing to pay an extra 1 dollar per month on their electric bill for renewable energy, and 69 percent would pay 3 dollars more.

Even when asked about paying up to 5 dollars more per month, 60 percent say they are willing to do so.

Residents are already taking steps to reduce their energy usage. About half (52 percent) say they take steps very frequently to use less energy. According to the report, however, there is no statistical relationship between concern over global warming and personal action to reduce energy consumption. While belief that global warming is real and serious is strongly related to support for policy action, belief that global warming is a problem is not sufficient to motivate residents to reduce their carbon footprint.

This could be related to residents thinking their neighbors are not doing much to address the problem. Survey results show just 4 percent of respondents believe the residents of Massachusetts are doing “a lot” to address global warming. A growing body of research shows individual environmental behavior is driven largely by social norms. To get widespread engagement, people must think the community is fully engaged.

About the poll

These results are based on a poll by the MassINC Polling Group of 1,311 adult residents of Massachusetts.  The poll was conducted in association with Princeton Survey Research Associates International (PSRAI). Live telephone interviews were conducted in English and Spanish from February 8 to 14, 2011 via both landline and cell phone by Princeton Data Source.  Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is ±3.8%.

About The MassINC Polling Group

The MassINC Polling Group (MPG) is an independent, non-partisan organization providing public opinion research and analysis to public and private sector clients. As a subsidiary of the think tank MassINC, MPG is uniquely objective, and thoroughly informed in local, state and national public affairs, as well as consumer-oriented market research. For more information, visit