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.

Climate Control

President Obama’s Georgetown Speech and Public Opinion 

“We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat-earth society.”
– President Obama on climate change deniers

Sandwiched between the George Zimmerman trial and Supreme Court announcements, President Obama announced his new energy strategy to combat climate change yesterday at Georgetown University. The speech outlined specific policy changes to address the United States global climate pledge to cut the nation’s carbon output to 17 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2020. Unlike other issues such as immigration reform or the healthcare bill, these policy changes can be executed through executive orders, therefore sidestepping congressional approval. These initiatives include limiting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, increasing appliance efficiency standards, focusing on renewable energy development on public lands, and strengthening coastal communities to help cope with severe weather and flooding.

While this action may defuse some of the domestic and international pressure for American action on climate issues, it may also aggravate worries of other Americans who are focused on a different kind of green. Several polls suggest that the increased costs related to stricter emission regulations and investment in renewable energy could elicit concern over perceived trade-offs between economic growth and the environment.

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