Aside from people's political leanings, there's a dominant trait that helps define Nebraskans' views on global warming: their gender.
A long list of factors — age, education levels, where we live — colors our views on the topic, according to The World-Herald Poll. Doubters of global warming are more likely to be from the western half of the state, vote Republican, and, by a small margin, be under the age of 45.
But the gulf between the beliefs of men and women is particularly striking.
While 63 percent of women believe that reports on the seriousness of global warming are correct or underestimated, just 45 percent of men feel the same way. By contrast, 51 percent of male survey respondents think those reports are exaggerated, compared with 31 percent of females.
Overall, 41 percent of the people surveyed in the poll believed that reports on the seriousness of global warming are exaggerated, while 36 percent believed they were generally correct. Another 18 percent said the reports were underestimated.
Those results are largely in line with a national Gallup poll conducted earlier this year.
The gender differences also show up in national polling, said Riley Dunlap, an Oklahoma State University sociology professor who has studied the issue.
Dunlap said the issue seems to boil down to two factors: political differences between men and women and the way the genders assess risks. Women, he said, are much more likely to spend time thinking about potential problems in the environment, whether it's clean water in a local stream or changes across the globe.
“It seems to be the underlying thing: that women, across the board, are more concerned about risk to the environment,” he said. “That's everything from local toxics all the way up to global warming.”
That's the case for Carol Vogt, a retired Omaha librarian and teacher who belongs to several animal welfare groups and sees climate change as a growing — and at least in part man-made — problem. She said she looks to groups like the Nebraska Wildlife Federation for information. Watching coverage of events like Hurricane Sandy, which happened after The World-Herald Poll was conducted, add to her worry.
“I would say maybe I'm more concerned than I was previously,” she said.
In addition to women's generally greater concern about environmental risk, Dunlap said, the recent election was evidence that women are more likely to support liberal candidates who make climate change a central issue. Women are also not the largest category of viewers or listeners of conservative television and radio shows that, he said, “portray climate change as a complete hoax.”
The World-Herald Poll found that 65 percent of Mitt Romney's supporters believed that reports on global warming's seriousness were exaggerated, compared to just 9 percent of President Barack Obama's backers. By party affiliation, 64 percent of Republicans said reports were exaggerated, compared to 15 percent of Democrats and 28 percent of independents.
Political divides can have a big impact on where people get their information on environmental issues, said John Pollack, a retired Omaha forecaster who has spoken to groups about global warming. He said it seems that many people agree that something might be changing in the climate — just not about how or why.
“If the information is coming at you from a source that you don't trust, it doesn't really matter how much it gets thrown at you,” he said. “You have to see it from your own eyes.”
Lyle Nielson, an 82-year-old retired family physician from Omaha, said he often doubts the veracity of what he reads about or sees on the news. He said he turns to sources like the Heartland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank, for reports on global warming — and hears enough to make him skeptical that humans are having much of an impact.
He said plans to cut back on carbon emissions don't make sense.
“To make the changes they recommend are so draconian, and the models they use are so iffy,” he said.
Doubts about global warming seemed to be more common among younger people, compared with older Nebraskans.
The greatest percentage of survey respondents who see global warming reports as exaggerated were in the 35 to 44 age category.
Pollack theorized that older people might be more likely to see changing patterns in weather, since they've had more years of experience.
But Bruce Johansen, a University of Nebraska at Omaha communication professor who has written a book on global warming, said Nebraskans might be particularly skeptical because our weather is already variable.
“We've always had storms, we've always had floods, we've always had droughts, so it's hard to make people understand that things are happening more often,” he said.
The poll found some differences in attitude based on where people live in Nebraska.
The 3rd Congressional District, which covers the western half of the state, had the highest number of people suspicious of global warming reports.
Steve Kemper, a retired state park manager who lives in Johnson Lake, near Lexington, Neb., said many farmers and ranchers in his area are steadfast in their views that the problem isn't as serious as some reports claim. He said changing those opinions would require a significant effort.
“I would put it this way,” he said, “they're going to have to be firmly convinced.”
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