Dr. Jon Krosnick: Public opinion on climate change and its impact on voting

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On October 14, CSW found Dr. Jon Krosnick, Stanford social psychologist and public opinion expert, at a seminar hosted by Resources for the Future.  Dr. Krosnick has consistently shown through research on public opinion and its relationship to voting habits that Americans favor politicians who support strong policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions.  His new research is no different; Dr. Krosnick reported that the majority of Americans favor politicians with “green” views on climate change, and that these politicians will receive more votes than those whose policies do not address climate change.

Post by Katherine O’Konski

Through a series of representative sample surveys, Dr. Krosnick found that, in general, Americans want to see politicians doing more about climate change.  Contrary to what the vocal climate denial machine would have you believe, in no state did he find that a majority of residents were skeptical that climate change was actually occurring.  Even in recent years (his data include 2011), when climate change seems to be seen as a political loser that is rarely emphasized by mainstream politicians, his surveys indicated that
for the country as a whole, certainty of the existence of climate change has increased.

News release on Krosnick study: Stanford researchers examine impact of ‘green politics’ on recent national elections

According to Dr. Krosnick’s data, the climate change skepticism we have encountered so often represents nothing more than highly vocal minorities:

Dr. Krosnick’s studies have been met with interest from the blogging community. Joe Romm of Climate Progress quoted Dr. Krosnick in an October 13 article:

“Our research suggests that it would be wise for the President and for all other elected officials who believe that climate change is a problem and merits government attention to say this publicly and vigorously, because most Americans share these views. Expressing and pursuing green goals on climate change will gain votes on election day and seems likely to increase the President’s and the Congress’s approval ratings.”

Two studies supported these conclusions.  First, Dr. Krosnick described a statistical nalysis predicting votes in the 2008 US presidential election, using data collected from 1000 randomly selected households before and after the  election.  Before the election, respondents were asked for their opinion on Obama’s versus McCain’s policies on climate change, and if he or she supported policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  After the election, respondents were asked to report which candidate they had voted for.

Voters’ personal proximity to Obama’s policies on climate change enhanced the likelihood of voting for him, and reduced votes for McCain. This was especially true among the climate change ‘issue public’: a group of individuals passionate about the topic such that it will influence which candidate he or she votes for.  These individuals can find implicit differences in the positions of different candidates even when not stated aloud. The issue public for climate change consists of about 15% of the population, which is typical for such groups.  This group includes both climate change deniers and mainstream climate science and IPCC supporters like CSW. However, where a typical issue public will have members split relatively equally on both sides of the problem, the climate change issue public is unique in that skeptics are vastly outnumbered. As CSW has previously reported, Dr. Krosnick finds that 90 of the climate issue public is strongly in favor of policies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

Second, Dr. Krosnick conducted a study relating to climate change and the 2010 congressional elections. He analyzed the relation of candidate website statements on climate with the victory rates of congressional candidates. Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment reports on Dr. Krosnick’s research:

“The researchers found that more than 80 percent of the Republican candidates’ websites did not address climate change at all. Of the remaining 20 percent, half acknowledged climate change as a problem and supported policies to reduce future greenhouse gas emissions and half were skeptical, expressing ‘not-green’ views.  In contrast, more than half of the democratic candidates took a ‘green’ stance, and the rest expressed no views.

“Democrats who took ‘green’ positions on climate change won much more often than did Democrats who remained silent.  Republicans who took ‘not green’ positions won less often than Republicans who remained silent.”

Of course, a number of factors impact the way individuals cast votes.  His team controlled for factors like the incumbency of candidates and the partisan leanings of the voters themselves.  But there are also  limitations to such a study – many times whether or not someone will vote for a candidate with strong climate change policies hinges on the performance of the local economy, trust in scientists, and recent weather patterns. According to Dr. Krosnick, the single most influential factor in determining whether or not
a person will support climate change policies is the nature of that person’s media exposure.  And not surprisingly, the nature of news media can be divided into two categories: those who get their news from Fox, and those who get news from other sources.

The more days of watching Fox, Dr. Krosnick explained, the more skeptical of climate change that person is likely to be.  And this isn’t just a self-selection bias, where climate change skeptics choose to watch Fox in the first place.  His research has indicated that Fox itself influences viewers to create climate change skepticism.

The conclusions of Dr. Krosnick’s presentation were positive from the viewpoint of those who believe strong climate policy is needed .  Americans take mostly “green” positions on climate change, and candidates who take green positions get more  votes, especially from the issue public. His research suggested that Americans support strong action on greenhouse gas emissions reduction, and are willing to pay for it, even in an economic downturn. The denial machine tactics are not convincing to most Americans.  Furthermore, we wonder if Obama’s near-silence on climate change is detrimental both to the planet and to the President’s approval rating – it looks as though climate change isn’t the political loser it has been seen as, if political ‘leaders’ will show leadership on it.

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