New US survey: public wants climate action, and large climate change “issue public” cares deeply

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Data from Krosnick's most recent survey

Despite a common perception in Washington, DC, 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,” Jon Krosnick, the Stanford University expert in climate change and public opinion has consistently argued. Reporting on his most recent survey data, Krosnick says climate change has a large and unusual “issue public” — a segment of the population that cares deeply about an issue and will vote accordingly — and that 90 percent of them strongly support climate change mitigation. His discussion suggests the “green jobs” narrative will likely work best in conjunction with talking with the public about how climate disruption threatens our way of life.Prof. Krosnick gave a September 20 webinar presentation in conjunction with Resource Media to discuss the meaning of his polling data. Krosnick’s survey data earlier this year indicated that leaders who champion climate policy can reap political gains, and that the ‘Climategate’ stolen e-mail and IPCC controversies have had very little impact on public opinion.

Previous presentations by Krosnick that we have covered (see here and here) made the case that Americans accept the reality of global warming and support government action; the September 20 presentation narrowed in on the implications of his data for political strategy.

Krosnick said that climate change has a large and unusual “issue public”— a segment of the population that cares deeply about an issue and will vote accordingly.”  Normally, an issue public is divided evenly between those supporting action on the issue and those opposing it.  However, on the climate change issue, about 90% of the issue public strongly supports action to mitigate global warming, Krosnick said.

He argued that these members of the issue public tend not to feel threatened by efforts actively opposing mitigation, because they see a Democratic president in office who campaigned on climate change and a Democratic Congress, and assume that positive action is being taken.  They are generally unaware of the threat from the small percentage of opposing political actors on the denier side, who are well-organized, well-funded, and occupy an outsized portion of the media narrative, said Krosnick.

From this perspective, better outreach to members of the issue public who are concerned about climate change but don’t follow politics closely could have the potential to motivate further pushback against climate deniers and their political representatives.

This fed into a discussion of the upcoming mid-term elections.  Krosnick said that it’s remarkable how quiet many of the candidates are being on global warming—at least the candidates who understand global warming and are supportive of mitigation.  A number of ‘conservative’ candidates have been very vocal about their regard for climate science and policy solutions; a recent Environment & Energy Daily (by subscription) headline noted: “Climate skeptics sweeping GOP Senate primaries.” Also check out the Wonk Room survey of Republican Senate candidates.

Krosnick referenced the “third person effect” hypothesis: the idea that “a person exposed to a persuasive communication in the mass media sees it as having a greater effect on others than on himself or herself.”  He said that legislators vastly overestimate the extent to which the public pays attention to the news media and is aware of particular stories, and exaggerate the extent to which public opinion can be swayed through persuasive communication.

Hence, you get Senator Inhofe spokesman Matt Dempsey claiming that “the swelling rank of skeptics running for office stems from a public backlash against liberals’ global warming “alarmism” (Environment & Energy Daily, September 20) The astroturf groups and rallies against government regulation spawned by the American Petroleum Institute, the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, and Dick Armey’s Freedomworks provide a convenient backdrop of “public outrage” to bolster anti-climate policies (see here and here).

While the “climate legislation is a job killer” narrative promoted by conservative politicians and think tanks has not really caught on with the general public, Krosnick said, Democratic lawmakers have an outsized fear that it might.  This perception may have contributed to the administration’s decision that taking about the impacts of climate change to advance policy is not a winning political strategy.

But drawing on forty years of psychology research, Krosnick said people are much more motivated by threats to existing conditions than they are by promises of future rewards.  So while the “green jobs” narrative presents a positive sell, it will work best in conjunction with a message about how climate change threatens our way of life.  While it may be too late to enact a price on carbon in the near future, political leaders would do well to heed this message: you can’t make meaningful climate and energy policy without telling the public what’s at stake.

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