Poll Suggests Obama Should Come Out in Support of Climate Action

Most Americans want government to do something about climate change

Craig Miller/KQED

The majority of Americans want the government to take action on climate change, but the majority is shrinking.

Two polls in as many weeks find that the majority of Americans support government policies to shift to cleaner energy. According to the first, conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, nearly three-out-of-four Americans (72%) think climate change should be a priority for Congress, and 70% want corporations and industry to do more to address climate change.

The second, conducted by Stanford, finds that though they’re still a majority, the proportion of Americans who support climate change policies, versus those who don’t, has dropped by ten percentage points since 2010.

Despite the diminishing support, social psychologist Jon Krosnick, who directed the Stanford poll, says politicians stand to benefit by addressing climate change head-on.

“Our analysis suggests Obama did win votes from McCain on the issue in 2008,” Krosnick told me. “Climate change opinions are partly driving people in the direction of the president, but not as much as they would if he came out more strongly on the issue, talking more frequently not just about green jobs, but also saying, ‘Climate change is happening, we should do something about it, and we can.’”

“That hypothesis that public opinion would drive what candidates say doesn’t seem to be happening.”
Stanford’s poll asked participants their opinions on government involvement in industry: Should the government require by law, or encourage with tax breaks, that companies build cars that use less gas (65% “yes” v. 78% 2010), build cars that run on electricity (53%, down from 65%), build appliances that use less energy (65% v. 77%), build more efficient homes and offices (67%, down from 78%) or lower the amount of greenhouse gases power plants can release (70%, down from 78%)? Still a majority in all cases, but a thinner one than two years ago.

Krosnick says political rhetoric is partially to blame for the change. Even though the majority of people in both parties want government to take action, the opinions candidates expressed in the Republican primaries didn’t reflect that.

“That hypothesis that public opinion would drive what candidates say doesn’t seem to be happening,” Krosnick said. Instead, the Republican candidates, who were unanimous in their opposition to taking action on climate change, seem to have swayed some people’s opinions. “After hearing such unanimity, it pushes people in a skeptical direction.”

One usual suspect that’s not a factor: the economy. Support for climate change policies fell more in states with good economies, than in states that are still struggling. Plus Krosnick adds, the timing wouldn’t make sense if the economy was to blame. “The notion that the economy has trumped climate change, there’s really no evidence of it at all. It would be hard to make the case that economy has gotten worse in the past two years, and yet support has declined.”

A couple things the Stanford survey finds probably won’t do politicians any good: supporting nuclear power (53% of people polled oppose tax breaks to build nuclear power plants, up from 49%) and increasing taxes (73% oppose increasing gasoline taxes; 80% oppose increasing electricity taxes).