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.

Figure1

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.

Figure2

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.

Figure3

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.

Figure4

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.

A Hot Mess: Relative Rankings of Climate Change as a Major Threat

home-earthBy Dina Smeltz

Over the first few days of August, I participated in a training session along with over a thousand climate leader candidates for the Climate Reality Leadership Corps, a grassroots network of climate leaders trained by Al Gore and others to highlight the urgency of the climate crisis.

The group of climate trainees included individuals from 70 different countries (and all 50 US states), and their task is to raise awareness and increase public concern at the local, national and international level.  Already familiar with American public perceptions of climate change, I decided after the training to track down a comparison of international views of climate change.  Fortunately, Pew research has done another great multinational comparison of the top global threats in North America, and among select countries in Europe, Middle East, Asia/Pacific countries, Latin America and Africa.

While China and the US are the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases in the world, the publics in those countries are not as concerned about climate change as are publics in less polluting countries.  Median percentage-wise, fewer in both the US (40%) and China (39%) say that global climate change is a major threat than median averages in Canada (54%), Europe (54%), Asia/Pacific nations (56% including China and Pakistan), Latin America (65%) and Africa (54%).  The Middle East median average (42%) of those believing that climate change is a major threat is about the same as in US and China.

But when reviewing the results in relative ranking to other top threats, global warming is a TOP concern in China (39% major threat), along with the threat of US power and influence (39%) and international financial stability (38%).  In fact, among the East Asian countries surveyed, climate change ranks as the top concern for Australians (52%), Indonesians (59%), Filipinos (66%), and South Koreans (85%).  Climate change is also among the top three major threats for the Japanese (72%), just after North Korea’s nuclear program (77%) and China’s power and influence (74%).

Americans are, of course, further away from the threat from Pyongyang than the Asia-Pacific countries; nevertheless, the threat from North Korea’s nuclear program is more alarming than climate change to US citizens. Climate change is the sixth most urgent threat to Americans (40%), after North Korea (59%), Islamic extremist groups (56%), Iran’s nuclear program (54%), International financial stability (52%), and China’s power and influence (44%).

Major Threats

Some readers might say that Asian publics are more focused on the issue of climate change because of their proximity to China, heightening their concern about China’s impact on the climate.  But our Canadian neighbors rank global climate change as the top major threat  facing their country (54%), followed by North Korea’s nuclear program (47%) and international financial stability (45%). Perhaps Canadian concern is heightened by proximity to the US.

The bottom line is that publics in the world’s top polluting countries are not nearly concerned enough about their countries’ impact on the planet.  We need to make the case – as the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 does –  that experts are predicting profound and adverse effects from climate change beyond extreme weather that could affect global agriculture, food supplies and water.  Josh Busby, a RunningNumbers guest blogger and author of a Council on Foreign Relations report on climate change and national security, points out that the effects of climate change could stretch US disaster-response capabilities for both domestic and international crises.  Moreover, the indirect effects of climate change could lead to massive migration shifts to meet resource needs, contributing to regional competition, hostilities or political instability.

I guess we have our work cut out for us.

Obama and the New Climate Paradigm

By Michael Shellenberger, President,  and Ted Nordhaus, Chairman of the  Breakthrough Institute

President Obama’s big climate speech this week was historic, but not for the reasons many observers have suggested. To his credit, Obama is following through on his promise to pursue climate policy in “chunks” in the fall of 2010, after cap and trade had died the summer before. But these chunks are not the old climate agenda in new clothing.

Where efforts to address climate change have for the last 20 years focused on reducing national emissions through sweeping policies, like cap and trade or carbon taxes, climate policy today has shifted decisively toward smaller bore, pragmatic policies that don’t promise to eliminate the climate crisis in one fell swoop but do help us move our economy toward greater “decarbonization,” sector by sector and technology by technology. Slowly but surely, a new climate pragmatism is taking shape.

Even as the global Kyoto Protocol collapsed and cap and trade legislation foundered in Congress, U.S. emissions have declined faster than any nation’s in the world. Cheap and clean natural gas, thanks to fracking technologies developed since the 1970’s with significant support from taxpayers, has rapidly displaced coal. New fuel economy standards have helped drive down automobile emissions. Federal Clean Air Act regulations on conventional air pollutants have made it more expensive to burn coal.

The administrative actions that the President announced in his State of the Union address last February and confirmed this week should further accelerate these trends. Regulation of carbon emissions from power plants will accelerate the shift from coal to gas and new fuel economy standards on heavy trucks will help further decarbonize the transportation fleet.

A similar transition is underway internationally, with bilateral and multilateral agreements among major emitters displacing efforts to make a grand bargain to cap global emissions at the United Nations, a shift proposed by a number of critics of the 20-year effort to cap emissions, including the two of us, over the last decade, that has only to begun to bear fruit since the collapse of international climate negotiations at Copenhagen in 2009.

One thing, however, does remain unchanged. Climate politics retains its penchant for hype and hyperbole. The White House promoted Obama’s speech in advance with beauty shots of the Earth, complete with a New Age soundtrack. In his speech, the President served up the usual red meat for climate partisans, restating the well-established fact that climate change has been incontrovertibly linked to human greenhouse gas emissions while offering dubious assertions about the link between warming and present day natural disasters.

The reaction from climate partisans was swift and predictable. David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council told the New York Times it was the speech that environmentalists had waited for twenty years to hear, while former Vice President Al Gore proclaimed it the most important speech about climate change that a President had ever given. Conservatives offered matched denunciations, claiming that the modest actions announced by the President would deeply damage the economy and that the President had caved to the radical green fringe.

The truth is much more prosaic. There is still much work to do. Most of the progress we have made in recent years has been through incremental improvement to our existing fossil energy infrastructure — burning gas instead of coal and improving the efficiency of automobiles — not replacing fossil energy with alternative technologies, which will be necessary in order to achieve significantly deeper reductions in carbon emissions.

But the pathway to developing cheap, scalable zero carbon energy technologies will be much the same as the path we have taken to developing cleaner fossil energy technology — sustained public support for technology innovation and targeted policies to deploy those technologies as they begin to become competitive.

The President, to his credit, has been steadfast in his support for research and deployment of clean energy technology, although the heavy focus on renewables has left other options, particularly nuclear, wanting. But beyond the specifics, the shift in strategy and emphasis is salutary.

While the rhetoric and polarization among climate partisans appear resistant to both intervention and changing circumstances, something important is happening below the surface. However, self proclaimed climate hawks on the left and their doppelgangers on the right are likely to be the last to know.