Survey Touches on Leadership, Household Choices, Pope Francis

A first-of-its-kind survey from the Saint Leo University Polling Institute shows that 73 percent of adult Americans responding are concerned about global climate change. Thirty percent reported being very concerned, and 43 percent said they were somewhat concerned.

The survey base included 1,016 respondents nationally, including voters and non-voters. The margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 3 percent, meaning the percentage answers could be off by that amount in either direction. This is the first time the Saint Leo University Polling Institute has asked members of the public questions about their attitudes about global climate change, their thoughts on public policy ramifications, their sources of information on the topic, their own ecological practices, and their reactions to Pope Francis’ ecological views.

“It is encouraging news that more than half show some level of concern,” said Dr. Leo Ondrovic, a Saint Leo University science faculty member who tracks global climate change research. Dr. Ondrovic also developed an undergraduate course for non-science majors called Evaluating the Predictions of Global Warming, which helps students understand the topic, and gives them an appreciation of the scientific method to help increase their overall scientific literacy.

Survey respondents who feel relatively little or no concern about global climate change are still a sizable population, though in the minority. Fifteen percent said they are somewhat unconcerned about global climate change, and 11 percent said they are not at all concerned, leading to a combined base of 26 percent. Only 1 percent said they don’t know or are unsure about the issue.

Dr. Ondrovic said the answers to another question on the source of global climate change

indicate a possible misperception among the general public, though. The survey posed the following question, asking respondents to select one of a group of statements:

Some people believe global climate change is currently occurring due to human activities, while others believe global climate change is part of a natural cycle. Which of the following best reflects what you believe:

  • 16 percent said global climate change is caused entirely by human activity
  • 14 percent said global climate change is caused entirely by nature
  • 61 percent said global climate change is caused by a combination of human activity and nature
  • 4 percent said they did not believe global climate change is occurring
  • 4 percent said they didn’t know or were unsure

“Global climate change theory predicts changes from the natural variations, yet 61 percent of the respondents think changes are a combination of both man-made and natural variation,” Dr. Ondrovic said. “This suggests that most people do not understand, or don’t believe, that climate scientists have already considered the contributions of nature.”

What People Are Noticing

Survey respondents were also asked to indicate if they are aware of one or more of the following happening in their state or region:

beach erosion                                                 unusually severe weather/storms

warmer temperatures                               ocean rising or seacoast flooding

loss or threatened loss of habitats      worsened air quality

loss or threatened loss of species        worsened drought conditions

“The majority of respondents have noticed some changes,” Dr. Ondrovic commented. “So the general public sees effects of the climate changing, although a majority did not attribute any single effect to climate change, even though all of these can be tied to climate change. So while this is encouraging, it seems there is more work to be done in explaining these connections to the general public.”

The most commonly cited responses were warmer temperatures at 45 percent, and unusually severe weather or storms, also at 45 percent. Then responses dropped into the 20 percent-range: 25 percent citing worsened air quality; 24 percent selecting worsened drought conditions; and 22 percent mentioning beach erosion. As for the other environmental possibilities, 15 percent mentioned ocean rising or seacoast flooding. The potential or actual loss of habitats appeared in 15 percent of responses and potential or actual loss of species appeared in 10 percent of answers.

Respondents were then asked how strongly they think global climate change was responsible for the changes around them, and were given the options of choosing: very strongly, somewhat strongly, not very strongly, not at all strongly, or don’t know/not sure.

More than 60 percent feel very strongly or somewhat strongly that global climate change is responsible for their observations of: warmer temperatures (69 percent); severe storms (67 percent); worsened drought conditions (66 percent); ocean rising (65 percent); and beach erosion, (62 percent).

With the remaining events: 57 percent said they feel very strongly or somewhat strongly that global climate change is responsible for loss or threatened loss of habits; 56 percent feel strongly or somewhat strongly that a loss or threatened loss of species is tied to global climate change; and 54 percent attribute worsened air quality to global climate change very strongly or somewhat strongly.

Who Are the Trusted Voices?

People were asked to identify from a list of 13 options which ones they trust to be reliable sources of information about global climate change. Multiple answers were allowed. Non-government scientists and educators were by far the sources named most often, at 45 percent. Environmental groups were cited 33 percent of the time.

Mainstream media (such as the Associated Press, The New York Times, ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN) appeared in 22 percent of responses; and so, too, did scientist and Cosmos television series host Neil deGrasse Tyson. Fox News appeared in 17 percent of the answers

The influence of Pope Francis was also the subject of a survey question. The polling audience – 69 percent of whom identified themselves as Christian – was asked:

Pope Francis recently said protecting the environment is the responsibility of all Christians. Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with this statement?  

Responses show 77 percent in agreement with the pope, with 38 percent strongly agreeing and 39 percent somewhat agreeing. Those who said they disagree somewhat came to 9 percent. Numbering 7 percent were those who said they strongly disagree with the pope and those who don’t know or aren’t sure.

“I am personally very pleased to see the high approval ratings of Pope Francis, and am glad he has spoken on this crucial issue,” Dr. Ondrovic said. “And since one of Saint Leo University’s core values is responsible stewardship, this is particularly gratifying.” (Pope Francis’ approval ratings appear in the related table showing responses in detail.)

Poised and Organized to Respond – Or Not?

When the survey moved into questions about which sectors the public considers best able to deal with problems created by global climate change, which could be most effective, and in fact bear the responsibility of dealing with problems, the picture clouded considerably.

Given just a single choice among local governments; state governments; federal or national governments; international bodies; or the private business sector/entrepreneurs; the federal government was most often cited as best able to deal with the problems attributed to global climate change. But the vote count was only 29 percent. International bodies were cited 18 percent of the time – the same proportion that said they didn’t know or aren’t sure.

Survey respondents were also asked which of the entities named have already been effective, and in this case the respondents were able to name as many of the entities as they wanted. But the most frequent answer, given 39 percent of the time, was that respondents don’t know or are not sure. The federal government was next at 25 percent, followed by the private sector at 23 percent, and state governments at 21 percent. International bodies were cited 16 percent of the time, slightly ahead of local governments at 14 percent.

Those responding were asked which entities bear responsibility for dealing with problems, and again were given the option of choosing as many from the list as they wanted. The highest percentage-getter was the federal government at 56 percent; followed by state government at 43 percent; the private sector at 40 percent; international bodies at 39 percent; and local governments at 38 percent. To look at it from a different angle, at least one-third of the response base has expectations from each possible entity. Fifteen percent did not know or were unsure.

Individuals and Choices

To see what steps individuals say they have taken to reduce carbon pollution, the survey asked people about eight possible courses of action, with multiple answers allowed. The survey also included “none of the above” and “Don’t know/not sure” as options. The most commonly chosen answer was that people had purchased a smaller or more fuel efficient car, at 33 percent. The next most popular answer was “none of the above” at 28 percent, followed by car pooling or using mass transit at 22 percent.

In another use of the same list of choices, people were asked what they would be willing to do to reduce carbon pollution, and they were allowed to pick more than one option. The top response getter, at 42 percent, was buying a smaller or more fuel-efficient car, closely followed by installing or purchasing alternative energy sources (such as solar) for the respondent’s home at 40 percent. Car pooling or using mass transit is an option 34 percent rated viable.

In thinking about the totality of the survey, Dr. Ondrovic stressed that he considers personal responsibility important in dealing with global climate change. “Regardless who shows the leadership, in the end it is up to each and every one of us to take the steps to address the issue, and to reduce or eliminate our personal contribution to the problem.”

Full Survey Results Available

For a table showing full results of the national survey, click here.

About the Saint Leo University Polling Institute/Methodology

This Saint Leo University poll of 1,016 people nationally (809 likely voters) was conducted between March 15 and March 19, 2015. The margin of error on political questions (of likely voters only) is approximately 4 percent +/- with a 95 percent confidence level. The Saint Leo University Polling Institute conducts its surveys using cutting-edge online methodology, which is rapidly transforming the field of survey research. The sample is drawn from large online panels, which allows for random selections that reflect accurate cross sections of all demographic groups. Online methodology has the additional advantage of allowing participants to respond to the survey at a time, place, and speed convenient to them, which may result in more thoughtful answers. The Saint Leo University Polling Institute develops the questionnaires, administers the surveys, and conducts analysis of the results. Panel participants typically receive a token incentive – usually $1 deposited into an iTunes or Amazon account – for their participation.

About Saint Leo University

Saint Leo University is a regionally accredited, liberal-arts-based institution known for an inclusive Catholic heritage, enduring values, and capacity for innovation. The school was chartered in 1889 by Catholic Benedictine monks in rural Pasco County, FL, making Saint Leo the first Catholic college in the state. Over its more than 125-year history, Saint Leo has provided access to education to people of all faiths, emphasizing the Benedictine philosophy of balanced growth of mind, body, and spirit.

Today the university welcomes learners from all generations and backgrounds, from civilian occupations and the armed forces, and from across the country and more than 60 nations around the world. Saint Leo’s 16,000 undergraduate and graduate students may elect to study at the beautiful University Campus in Florida, at more than 40 teaching locations in seven states, or online from other locations. The university’s degree programs range from the associate to the doctorate. Throughout these rich offerings, Saint Leo develops principled leaders for a challenging world.

Saint Leo University boasts more than 70,000 alumni in all 50 states, Washington, DC, three U.S. territories, and 70 countries.

Media Contact: Jo-Ann Johnston, Saint Leo University academic communications manager, at or (352) 588-8237/(352) 467-0843 (cell).