Daniel W. Drezner

How robust is public support for addressing climate change?

Stanford Professor Jon C. Krosnick has an interesting op-ed in today’s New York Times in which he argues that public skepticism about climate change in the United States has been way overblown:  [N]ational surveys released during the last eight months have been interpreted as showing that fewer and fewer Americans believe that climate change is real, ...

Stanford Professor Jon C. Krosnick has an interesting op-ed in today’s New York Times in which he argues that public skepticism about climate change in the United States has been way overblown: 

[N]ational surveys released during the last eight months have been interpreted as showing that fewer and fewer Americans believe that climate change is real, human-caused and threatening to people.

But a closer look at these polls and a new survey by my Political Psychology Research Group show just the opposite: huge majorities of Americans still believe the earth has been gradually warming as the result of human activity and want the government to institute regulations to stop it.

In our survey, which was financed by a grant to Stanford from the National Science Foundation, 1,000 randomly selected American adults were interviewed by phone between June 1 and Monday. When respondents were asked if they thought that the earth’s temperature probably had been heating up over the last 100 years, 74 percent answered affirmatively. And 75 percent of respondents said that human behavior was substantially responsible for any warming that has occurred.

For many issues, any such consensus about the existence of a problem quickly falls apart when the conversation turns to carrying out specific solutions that will be costly. But not so here.

Fully 86 percent of our respondents said they wanted the federal government to limit the amount of air pollution that businesses emit, and 76 percent favored government limiting business’s emissions of greenhouse gases in particular. Not a majority of 55 or 60 percent — but 76 percent.

Large majorities opposed taxes on electricity (78 percent) and gasoline (72 percent) to reduce consumption. But 84 percent favored the federal government offering tax breaks to encourage utilities to make more electricity from water, wind and solar power.

And huge majorities favored government requiring, or offering tax breaks to encourage, each of the following: manufacturing cars that use less gasoline (81 percent); manufacturing appliances that use less electricity (80 percent); and building homes and office buildings that require less energy to heat and cool (80 percent).

Thus, there is plenty of agreement about what people do and do not want government to do.

Our poll also indicated that some of the principal arguments against remedial efforts have been failing to take hold. Only 18 percent of respondents said they thought that policies to reduce global warming would increase unemployment and only 20 percent said they thought such initiatives would hurt the nation’s economy. Furthermore, just 14 percent said the United States should not take action to combat global warming unless other major industrial countries like China and India do so as well.

Krosnick goes on in the essay to debunk polling results suggesting contrary trends for all of the above statements — except the one on burden-sharing with China and India, which is the observation that intrigues me the most. 

Krosnick’s essay is a useful rejoinder to morose pessimism about climate change.  That said, methinks Krosnick’s take on public demand for action on climate change is a bit overstated, for three interrelated reasons. 

First, Krosnick finds strong opposition to end-user taxation on carbon-emitting activities.  This suggests to me that there’s less consenus on what exactly to do than Krosnick believes.  Furthermore, this opposition provides a political opening for opponents of climate change legislation to frame the issue in such a way as to generate opposition. 

Second, the partisanship on this issue is rising (cue Lindsey Graham, with a major assist from Harry Reid), as this CBS poll from last fall found:

The increase in climate skepticism is driven largely by a shift within the GOP. Since its peak 3 1/2 years ago, belief that climate change is happening is down sharply among Republicans — 76 to 54 percent — and independents — 86 to 71 percent. It dipped more modestly among Democrats, from 92 to 86 percent. A majority of respondents still support legislation to cap emissions and trade pollution allowances, by 53 to 42 percent.

Opposition among the Republican mass public will mean that the issue will not generate groundswells of public opinion for action, as with financial regulation.  Unlike FinReg, this is not an issue on which the GOP will crumple like a pinata. 

Finally, despite Krosnick’s assurances in the op-ed that climate skeptics have not influenced public attitudes about the phenomenom, his own experiments suggest that the more face time skeptics get, the more doubt they can sow

The news stories that respondents watched featured the views of only one skeptic and made no claims about the prevalence of such skeptical views. Nonetheless, respondents generalized from a single skeptic to scientists more generally, perceiving less agreement in the scientific community broadly. Our findings suggest that balanced news coverage may have been at least partly responsible for discrepancies between the American public and the scientific community on issues of climate change.

Still, read the whole thing

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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