Half of Americans Say US Government Not Doing Enough on Climate Change

By Dina Smeltz, Craig Kafura, and Liz Deadrick

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As world leaders convene at the UN climate summit this week, new Chicago Council Survey results show that Americans rate climate change as a lower priority than other foreign policy concerns. At the same time, however, many Americans – and a majority among self-described Democrats – believe that the US government should do more to address this issue. An overall majority say they favor United States’ participation in an international treaty that would call for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate Change not a top threat for Americans

About a third of Americans (35%) say that climate change is a critical threat to the vital interests of the United States. Slightly more rate climate change as an important but not critical threat (38%). These ratings place the threat of climate change 16th out of the 20 total potential threats asked about in the 2014 Chicago Council Survey.

In line with these views, four in ten Americans (41%) say limiting climate change is a very important goal for the United States; a similar proportion (40%) says it is a somewhat important goal. The percentage rating the goal of limiting climate change as very important has grown recently: only three in ten viewed it as a very important goal in 2010 and 2012.


Climate Change Seen as Future, Not Immediate, Threat 

Americans may say climate change is not a critical threat because they tend to view the problem as a distant threat to the United States. A November 2013 study by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that a plurality of Americans thought that climate change will start to harm people in the United States in ten or more years (10% in ten years, 14% in 25 years, 11% in 50 years, and 12% in 100 years). Another 18 percent said that it will never harm the people in the US.  Just one in three (34%) said that climate change is harming the American people “right now.”   

But Many Want Government to Do More

While they see other priorities as more pressing, many want the US government to do more to address climate change. Half of Americans (50%) say that the US government is not doing enough to deal with the problem of climate change—up five percentage points from 2012, when a plurality (45%) said the government was not doing enough. Three in ten (31%) say the government is doing about the right amount, while two in ten (19%) say it is doing too much.

Some of the actions Americans would endorse include increasing tax incentives to encourage the development and use of alternative energy sources, such as solar or wind power (73%) and requiring automakers to increase fuel efficiency even if this increases the price of cars (69%). A large majority of Americans (71%) also support the US participating in a “new international treaty to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” Support is even higher among those who say that the government is not doing enough to deal with climate change—92 percent of this group believes that the US should participate. Conversely, 80 percent of people who say the government is doing too much oppose US participation in the treaty.


Partisan Divides on Climate

Climate change is a highly partisan issue. Self-described Democrats are far more likely to see climate change as a critical threat to US vital interests (51%) than Independents (35%) and Republicans (12%). This is consistent with past Council Surveys: Democrats have always been at least 30 percentage points more likely to see climate change as a critical threat.

Similarly, more than half of Democrats (54%) say that limiting climate change is a very important goal versus 40 percent of Independents and 22 percent of Republicans. Democrats (66%) and Independents (51%) are much more inclined than Republicans (35%) to say the government is not doing enough to combat the problem.


However, these partisan divisions over the importance of climate change do not mean that there are no areas of overlap: majorities of Republicans (54%), Democrats (86%), and Independents (70%) support the US participating in a new international treaty to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Americans who consider themselves “a part of, or a supporter of, the Tea Party movement”[1] are also less likely to see climate issues as important. They are also less likely to support action to address climate change. Only two in ten of Tea Party sympathizers (19%) say climate change is a critical threat and only a quarter (27%) say liming climate change is a very important goal for the US. Half of Tea Party backers say the government is doing too much to deal with the problem of climate change (49%), and a majority oppose participating in a treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (56%).

“Climate Change” v. “Global Warming”

Some prior experimental survey research has demonstrated that using either “climate change” or “global warming” does not affect public perceptions of the problem’s seriousness[2]. Wording choices were also tested in the 2008 Chicago Council Survey, and this experiment did reveal a difference. Then, 44 percent of Americans labeled “global warming” a critical threat, while 39 percent said the same about “climate change.”

The 2014 Chicago Council Survey reiterated this experiment, randomly assigning “global warming” or “climate change” to half the survey sample. Results were similar to 2008. Americans are somewhat more concerned about “global warming” than they are about “climate change,” with 42 percent labeling global warming a critical threat, compared to 35 percent who say the same about climate change. There was not much of an effect on the rating of the issue as a goal. The public similarly rates limiting global warming (42%) and limiting climate change (41%) as very important goals.


Republicans are particularly sensitive to the change in wording. Twenty-five percent of Republicans say global warming  is a critical threat—more than double the percentage for climate change (12%). Democrats and Independents do not appear to differentiate between the two: they are just as likely to view global warming and climate change as critical threats.

About the 2014 Chicago Council Survey

The analysis in this report is based on data from the 2014 Chicago Council Survey and previous Chicago Council Surveys of the American public on foreign policy. The 2014 Survey was conducted by GfK Custom Research using their large-scale, nationwide research panel between May 6 to May 29, 2014 among a national sample of 2,108 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. The margin of error for the overall sample is ± 2.1 percentage points; for the experiment on climate change and global warming, the margin of error is ± 4.2 percentage points.

For more results from the 2014 Chicago Council Survey, please see Foreign Policy in the Age of Retrenchment, which can be found at http://www.thechicagocouncil.org.

The 2014 Chicago Council Survey is made possible by the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Korea Foundation, the United States-Japan Foundation, and the personal support of Lester Crown.

For more information regarding the 2014 Chicago Council Survey, please contact Dina Smeltz, senior fellow, Public Opinion and Global Affairs (dsmeltz@thechicagocouncil.org; 312-821-6860) or Craig Kafura, senior program officer, Studies (ckafura@thechicagocouncil.org; 312-821-7560).


[1] Among those who consider themselves a part of or identify with the Tea Party movement (12% overall), 49 percent identify as Republicans, 18 percent as Democrats, and 31 percent as Independents.

[2] Villar, A., & Krosnick, J. A. (2011). “Global warming vs. climate change, taxes vs. prices: Does word choice matter?” Climatic Change, 105, 1-12.

American Views of the United Nations

By Dina Smeltz, senior fellow, public opinion and foreign policy, and Craig Kafura, senior program officer, studies

The 69th session of United Nations General Assembly will be held against the backdrop of international crises that include the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, ISIS military gains in Iraq and Syria, and continuing negotiations with Iran. While majorities of Americans are confident in the UN’s ability to carry out humanitarian efforts and peacekeeping missions, they are more skeptical of the UN’s effectiveness when it comes to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, resolving international conflicts, and sanctioning countries that violate international law.

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Americans support going along with UN policy even if not first choice for US

In every Chicago Council Survey since 2004, majorities of Americans have agreed that the United States should be more willing to make decisions within the UN even if this means that the United States will sometimes have to go along with a policy that is not its first choice, and the 2014 survey is no different (currently at 59%, returning to 2006 levels). Two in three Americans also say that strengthening the United Nations is an effective approach to achieving US foreign policy goals (64%).


United Nations rated highest on peacekeeping, humanitarian, and cultural activities

The 2014 Chicago Council survey finds that Americans rate the United Nation’s peacekeeping, cultural and humanitarian efforts as more effective than UN approaches toward more hard-hitting threats. About six in ten think the United Nations is doing a good job at sending peacekeeping troops to conflict zones (61%), protecting the cultural heritage of the world (61%), leading international efforts to combat hunger (57%), and protecting and supporting refugees around the world (57%). In a separate question, a majority also supports working through the United Nations to strengthen international laws against terrorism and to make sure UN members enforce them (78%).

But the public is more divided on whether the United Nation is doing a good or bad job at authorizing the use of force to maintain or restore international peace and security (51% good, 45% bad), preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons (50% good, 47% bad), imposing sanctions to punish countries that violate international law (50% good, 46% bad) and resolving international conflicts through negotiations (50% good, 46% bad).



Strengthening the UN not a high foreign policy priority

However, strengthening the United Nations does not rate as a top goal for Americans. From 1974 to 2002, about half said that strengthening the United Nations was a very important goal. Since 2004, however, no more than four in ten say that strengthening the United Nations is a very important goal. This may partly reflect a partisan divide that emerged in the wake of the Iraq War, which was hotly debated in the UN Security Council before its start in 2003. Since in 2004, fewer Republicans and Independents consider strengthening the United Nations a very important goal, while the percentage of Democrats who favor doing so has remained more or less constant over the past decade.


On another question, a much smaller majority now than in 1974 says that the US role in the founding of the United Nations was “a proud moment” in US history (59% versus 81% in 1974), though many say it is neither a proud nor dark moment (12% in 2014) or that they are unsure (12% in 2014). Of course, the 40-year time difference could account for this change. But when asked the same question about the US role in World War II, an identical percentage today as in 1974 say the US role in WWII is a proud moment in American history (68% a proud moment for both 1974 and 2014).

Foreign Policy in the Age of Retrenchment

Yesterday, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs released Foreign Policy in the Age of Retrenchment, the first of several reports on the 2014 Chicago Council Survey. Below are a selection of key findings from the report, which you can find in full at www.thechicagocouncil.org. Be sure to follow @ChicagoCouncil@IvoHDaalder, @RoguePollster, and @ckafura for continuing discussion of the 2014 Survey results. 

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Among much of the political elite today, a specter is haunting America—the specter of isolationism. Since the last Chicago Council Survey in 2012, many policymakers, politicians, and pundits have come to question the continued willingness of Americans to engage in world affairs. As global troubles brew in Gaza, Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine, some claim that the public is turning inward and resistant to any sort of US military intervention. And they have used public opinion polling to argue their points.

Public continues to support an active role for the United States in world affairs.

But a new survey by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, conducted from May 6 to 29, 2014, demonstrates that isolationism is not the appropriate term to describe current public opinion. Public support for international engagement remains solid, with six in ten Americans in favor of an active role in world affairs. At the same time, four in ten Americans now say the US should stay out of world affairs—a proportion that has grown to its highest point since the first Chicago Council Survey in 1974.


The new survey data show that this growing desire among Americans to “stay out” of world affairs is linked to increased criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a decreased sense of threat, a long-standing desire to focus on domestic problems, and an increased divide among Republicans on this question. But the data do not show a desire to disengage from the world. Instead, results of the 2014 Chicago Council Survey confirm continued, and in some cases even growing support for US international involvement, especially when it comes to nonmilitary forms of engagement.

Indeed, the most striking finding of the 2014 Chicago Council Survey is the essential stability of American attitudes toward international engagement, which have not changed all that much since the Council conducted its first public opinion survey 40 years ago. As they have for four decades, Americans support strong US international leadership, place primacy on protecting American jobs over other foreign policy goals, favor diplomacy with countries that are hostile toward the United States, support participation in many international treaties and agreements, and endorse trade despite economic setbacks. Americans remain selective about when they will support putting US troops in harm’s way, but are most likely to do so in response to top threats or humanitarian crises.

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Somebody’s Watching Me: American Views on NSA Surveillance

By Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura

President Obama delivered a speech earlier today announcing curbs he plans to implement on government surveillance activities. A survey conducted earlier this month (January 4-7, 2014) by Quinnipiac University showed that Americans tend to think that NSA collection of phone call records is excessively intrusive for Americans’ personal privacy. But the public is divided on whether the program is necessary to keep Americans safe. In contrast to 2012 Chicago Council Survey data that shows greater inclination among Republicans to support anti-terrorism efforts, this recent poll shows a partisan shift here—with more Democrats than Republicans saying the phone record program is necessary for US security.

Many Americans Seem to Agree that Leaks Created “More Heat than Light”

Given the open investigation against Edward Snowden, the President limited his comments on Snowden’s actions, though he did characterize the nature of the disclosures as creating “more heat than light.” For their part, a majority of Americans consider Snowden a “whistle blower” (57%) versus a “traitor” (34%). Yet by about a 5 to 4 margin, more say that Snowden’s revelations were mainly bad for the country (46% bad, 40% good), and think the Obama administration should NOT “drop the pursuit of Snowden and let him come home as a free man” (47%, 39% should drop pursuit).

Bare Majority Say NSA Surveillance Has Gone Too Far

When asked whether anti-terrorism policies have gone too far in impinging upon civil liberties or not far enough to adequately protect the country, 51 percent of Americans think the government has gone too far (33% not far enough, 16% unsure). This marks the first time since this question was asked in 2010 that a (bare) majority says the government has gone too far. Back in 2010, a majority (63%) thought the government was NOT doing enough. Once Edward Snowden’s revelations about the scope of NSA surveillance became public in the summer of 2013, pluralities began to say the government had gone too far (Figure 1).


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Though Diplomacy is Still Favored in Dealing with North Korea, American Support for Using US Troops to Defend South Korea Hits All-time High

By Gregory Holyk, Research Analyst at Langer Research, and Dina Smeltz, Senior Fellow, The Chicago Council

 If Kim Jong-un was trying to get our attention, he’s certainly succeeded.

An April 12-15 Chicago Council survey (fielded before the Boston Marathon attacks) suggests that the provocative threats from Pyongyang have had some effect on American attitudes. The number of Americans who support defending South Korea from an attack from North Korea is at an all-time high of 46 percent (similar to 45% in 2006) in 10 surveys going back 23 years. But vastly more continue to support diplomatic rather than military solutions to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.

In the wake of significant saber rattling on the part North Korea, including military exercises and threats of retaliation, Americans are closely divided on whether to put American lives on the line in helping our ally South Korea, with more opposing (50%) than in favor (46%). This is in sharp contrast from just last year when opponents outnumbered supporters by 15 percentage points.


It’s especially noteworthy that while there have been slight shifts in support for using US troops to defend North Korea in the event of an invasion, support for sending U.S. troops to other hotspots has now dropped to all-time lows in Chicago Council surveys. Only 22 percent now support using US military forces to defend Taiwan if it was invaded by China, a new low in surveys dating back to 1998 (76% now oppose, the highest reported opposition during the same time period). And fewer (44%) than in previous surveys support using US military forces to come to Israel’s defense if it were attacked by its neighbors; by contrast, in 2010 and 2012, opinion essentially divided evenly.

As in past surveys, a solid majority of Americans – by nearly 2-1 – favor defending South Korea from an attack from the north if the US were “contributing military forces, together with other countries, to a UN sponsored effort to reverse the aggression.” This reading is identical to one year ago.


Following North Korea’s displays of intentions to revive its nuclear weapons program, more than eight in 10 continue to support diplomatic efforts to pressure North Korea to discontinue its nuclear program, while 66 percent (up from 60% in 2012) think the U.S. should “stop and search North Korean ships for nuclear materials and arms.”

Military options engender far less enthusiasm, though slightly greater minorities now support action. Fifty-two percent oppose US air strikes against military targets and suspected nuclear sites; 43 percent favor them, up 6 points from 2012. Three-quarters say they’re against sending US troops “to take control of the country” (though support is up a slight 4 points from last year).


These results dovetail with findings from a recent New York Times/CBS April 24-28 poll showing seven in 10 Americans think the threat from North Korea can be contained for now, though the Chicago Council results also show an increase in willingness to step up the pressure on Kim Jong-un.

As is typical of questions on the use of force, partisanship plays a role, with Republicans more willing to act unilaterally than Democrats. While six in 10 Republicans favor sending US troops if North Korea attacks South Korea, a nearly identical 59 percent of Democrats oppose doing so. Independents, for their part, are equally split. (These same partisan splits also are apparent in support for aiding Israel, but not in the case of a hypothetical Chinese attack on Taiwan.)

However, if the effort to aid South Korea is a multilateral one through the United Nations, partisan differences disappear (with support between 68 and 70 percent). While Republican support rises 10 points when the UN is involved, support jumps by 27 and 19 points among Democrats and independents, respectively.

On specific approaches to persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions, partisanship isn’t much of a factor, with diplomacy far preferred over military options across partisan lines.

Taking a broad view, it’s interesting that somewhat more Americans are now willing – even if still only minorities – to use force against North Korea now than in 2012, while support for using military options in other volatile situations has declined. This likely highlights the role of the media in covering North Korean nuclear tests and rhetoric coming from Pyongyang, with more Americans paying attention to this news story.

Indeed, a Washington Post blog post on April 11th  reported that American internet users were searching for information about North Korea with “astounding, unprecedented frequency.” Additionally, a CNN/ORC poll (April 5-7) found an increase in the percentage who consider North Korea an immediate threat to the United States (41%, up from 28% in March 2013). That said, the public still clearly favors a more diplomatic approach. So far, the Obama administration has taken a cautious tack, choosing not to take the bait publicly. But if these provocations persist and the American public continues to take note, the pressure on the administration to respond may increase.

Ten Years On, GOP Faithful Less Positive about Iraq War

The Cakewalk that Wasn’t

By Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura

There have been a lot of retrospective pieces about the Iraq war the past few weeks (before they were overtaken by commentaries about Margaret Thatcher), but Ole R. Holsti, the George V. Allen Professor of Political Science (Emeritus) at Duke University, has been looking at American attitudes on the Iraq war for quite a while. In “American Public Opinion and the Iraq War,” Holsti, highlights the deep partisan divisions in responses to survey questions about the reasons we went to war and in evaluations of our military operations there. In polls from 2004-2009 self-identified Republican respondents were generally 50 to 60 percentage points more favorable than Democrats when asked if going to war was the right thing to do and was worth the cost. Holsti noted that such a wide partisan gap was “unprecedented in the history of polling on American foreign policy.”

A few years later, the 2012 Chicago Council Survey found that Americans of all political stripes were generally pessimistic about the benefits of the Iraq conflict. But partisan divisions were still apparent, with some key differences in degree – though not as high as 50 to 60 percent differences mentioned above. Democrats were 27 points more likely to say that the war was not worth the costs (75%, vs. 48% of Republicans). Attitudes toward the Afghan war were not as divided (68% of Democrats, 75% of Independents, and 55% of Republicans said the war was not worth the costs—see figure 1).  The decline in Republican support for the Iraq war was also evident in polls conducted by Pew Research from 2003-2013.  In 2003, 90 percent of Republicans in the Pew survey said the war was the right decision;  by 2013,  markedly smaller majority (58%) of Republicans said the war was the right decision.

Figure 1: War was not worth the costs (%)

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Beyond Reading the Tea Leaves: Using Data to Understand Partisanship and Foreign Policy

Guest bloggers Jonathan Monten, Department of Political Science, University of Oklahoma, and Josh Busby, LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas-Austin (on twitter @busbyj2)

For many observers of American politics, the fight over the nomination of Chuck Hagel as the next Secretary of Defense is indicative of growing partisan acrimony in the conduct of US foreign policy. However, concerns about intensifying partisanship in foreign affairs are not new. A number of scholars including Shapiro and Bloch-Elkon, Trubowitz and Mellow, and Bafumi and Parent have warned that, in the two decades since the end of the Cold War, partisanship in foreign policy has been on the rise. According to this narrative, US foreign policy since the end of World War II was underpinned by broad, bipartisan support for an international strategy based on both projecting military power internationally and a commitment to multilateral institutions and agreements. Many of these same scholars, including Kupchan and Trubowitz, now warn that the bipartisan consensus in favor of this strategy – commonly referred to as “liberal internationalism” – is now unraveling. These scholars cite a number of explanations driving this trend, such as the end of the threat posed by the Soviet Union, ideological polarization among the parties, and generational change. From this point of view, the Bush administration’s embrace of unilateralism after September 11th was not an aberration, but rather reflected a long-running and irreversible trend.

About five years ago, we asked ourselves what evidence we could bring to bear on assessing this claim. We looked at a variety of data: Congressional voting, party electoral platforms, Presidential State of the Union speeches, public opinion data (including survey data collected by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs), and information on the educational and biographical backgrounds of individuals serving in high-level foreign policy positions. If the claim that support for liberal internationalism was in decline were accurate, we would expect to see evidence of this decreasing support in each of these areas. Instead, as we demonstrated in a 2008 piece in Perspectives on Politics and a subsequent 2012 piece in Political Science Quarterly, we found a more mixed picture than what the conventional wisdom suggests. Continue reading