Polls Underestimate Climate Change Concerns, Study Finds

A historic water marker left high and dry at Lake Powell in April 2010. (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

A historic water marker left high and dry at Lake Powell in April 2010. (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

If you’ve been paying attention at all over the last year, you’ve no doubt heard that Americans don’t care very much about climate change.  Pew polls, Yale polls, Gallup polls–all have found in the past year that climate change and the environment rank pretty much dead last when it comes to issues people care about in the United States.  But new research out of Stanford suggests that the truth might actually be a bit more complicated, and that Americans might be a lot more concerned about climate change than these polls indicate.

As it turns out, it’s all in the asking.

Jon Krosnick, a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, recently found that the standard “Most Important Problem” question, which has been a staple of polls and surveys for generations, might not capture the true nature of public sentiment toward environmental issues.

Krosnick has been studying the public’s perception of climate change since the 1990s. He said that during that time his findings have continually indicated that “huge majorities” agreed that the planet is heating up and that the government should take action, but that global warming was repeatedly left off the list when people were asked what was the country’s most important problem.

It was a Stanford undergraduate, Samuel Larson, who suggested that perhaps how the question was being asked was influencing the answers, said Krosnick.  Maybe, Larson postulated, if the question were opened up to consider the world, rather than just the United States, and if it asked about the future, rather than today, people’s answers might reflect something different.

In fact, their answers changed dramatically, researchers found.  In the May 2010 study, the team analyzed the results of two polls from the fall of 2009 that addressed the issue in two distinct ways.   When asked, “What do you think is the most important issue facing the world today?” about half (49%) of respondents in the first poll answered “the economy” or “unemployment,” while only one percent mentioned global warming or the environment.  In the second poll, the responses were 54% economy and two percent environment.

But when the question was re-framed as “What do you think is the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?” the results swung dramatically.  In the first poll, 25% said the environment or global warming, and 10% said the economy.  In the second poll the results were 21% and 16%, respectively.

For specific data on Californians and their views on environmental issues and climate policy, see last summer’s PPIC report: Californians and the Environment.

  • http://ncwatch.typepad.com/ Russell Steele

    Well, your filed it correctly in “beliefs” The facts are missing. Show the people the temperature graphs showing that the climate has cooled since 2002, with a increasing slope since 2005 and then then ask them if global warming is going to be threat in the future. Can you guess the answer? Right. Once you move beyond beliefs to the facts most citizens are smarter than your average Stanford Professors.

  • http://Reiser.net Matthew Reiser

    Hence the reason for our collective slowness in responding to the warming problem: We don’t sense it as an urgent problem in our short-term thinking.

  • Dixon Cruickshank

    Should have ask me – finding firewood became my biggest priority _ I presume Stanford professors have it delivered rather than trolling for christmas tree’s

    Gretch – its over Hon, give it up and find another topic for your career

  • Neil Bulger

    It is stifling the level of inaction and short sightedness in our collective inability to see the problem before us. If anything, the compounding messages left here paint the perfect picture of the inactive America, stuck in the past.

    For years, we promoted science as a leading tool towards success and development. Had anyone of your children actually gone to Stanford and taken the challenge to become a professor, I judge your tune would be different. To call science to a political realm of debate and doubt, declaring the average American to understand the complexities, is insulting both to our county and science equally.

    It spits in the face of our forefathers to sit on our hands while our opportunity to step into a world where we actually will exist in 100 yrs passes us by. Climate Change is real and the nay Sayers will come around as the resources turn to waste fills.

  • Dixon Cruickshank

    Neil if I may – Yes it is hard to see the “issue” as there doesn’t appear to be one, based on observations as Russ pointed out. If by stuck in past you refer to the climate history where the earth cooled and heated for Eons with no regard to us whether we were here or not – guilty.

    As for your comment of debate and doubt, isn’t that what science is all about? Climate Change – it sure is, always changing but I will take this warming spell over an Ice Age, they don’t sound very fun to deal with. So its a very good thing the earth has warmed or you couldn’t even go outside.
    People that think this is natural variation, and frankly it has been proven we can’t change anything if we wanted – did not make it Political – you did.
    As far as the average American they are smarter than you think and your maybe not as smart as you think. They can read a thermometer and obviously your struggling with that because its too complicated.
    I don’t need or want you to tell me how to live, what car I can drive or how much electricity I can use.
    I don’t want to be taxed for no reason to support some massive Government programs and a pack of rent seeking scientists to study it.
    At this juncture your scientific hypothesis has failed and thats the science, thank goodness it took less than 20 yrs.

    Have a nice day

  • Neil Bulger

    The debate and doubt I speak to is the one of doubting the very entity we once held as a guiding factor. If 99% of the worlds scientists know something to be true and people refuse to listen until they either see for themselves or are shaken by sudden impacts, I judge that we will have truly lost our ability to be genuine and trust one another.

    The space I hold is one of empathy towards yourself, our children, our children’s children, and our planet. I have no desire to inform you how to live your life or your ability to drive cars, use electricity or seek happiness. Taxes and government programs may span our current reality and near future, but the real truth is, are current means of production and unsustainable pathway is taxing our future generations.

    I do not ask anyone to sacrifice quality of life, I simply point to the abundant future we can build when we have the honest conversations about what does it mean to consider the next 7 generations with every decision we make? Will my children be able to farm my land if I continue to put highly dense fertilizers into the soil that degrade the minerals? Will they have the opportunity to play at or a beach, or will will our waters run polluted with a myriad of unnecessary chemicals?

    As my hero once said, we are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of a dream. My dream is to live a happy life where we create compassionate civilizations that are cognizant creatures of this earth just like everything else.