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.