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Gauging Public Opinion on Climate Change Policy


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. If you pay attention to the rhetoric between climate change supporters and deniers, you would think that it is a polarizing issue that you could predict by political party affiliation, which way people might fall on issues like clean energy, on taxes on energy. Well, there's a really interesting new poll out this week that says that's not true. A majority of people of all parties believe that global warming should be a political priority and they want their elected officials to do something about it.

Joining me now to talk about it is Anthony Leiserowitz. He's director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication at Yale University in New Haven. He's one of the people behind that survey. Welcome back to the program, Anthony.

ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: It's great to be with you, Ira. Thank you.

FLATOW: I'm just looking at the abstract of your study, and some of these numbers are amazing. Seventy-two percent, 72 of all Americans think that global warming should be a very high or medium or a priority for the president and the Congress. That crosses all party lines.

LEISEROWITZ: It does. It includes 84 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 52 percent of Republicans. So yes, there is this difference between Democrats and Republicans. But nonetheless, a majority of Republicans do think that global warming should be a priority for our elected officials.

FLATOW: So why are we all under the impression that there is not this majority?

LEISEROWITZ: Ah. Great question. So one of the things that became very clear to us early in our research was that Americans don't speak with a single voice on this issue. And in fact, what we've identified is what we call a global warming's six Americas, that essentially you can look at the country and find that there are six very different communities within the United States, that each respond to this issue in very different ways. One group we call the alarmed. That's only about 12 percent of the public.

These are people who are firmly convinced it's happening, human caused, urgent. They're taking some action in their lives, and they want to know what else can I do as an individual or we do collectively as a society. That's followed by a group we call the concerned. That's about 27 percent. These are people who also think it's happening and human caused, but they think it's more of a distant threat. You know, maybe distant - you know, impacts won't be felt for a generation or more.

So they think we should do something, but it's not a high priority. Then a group we call the cautious. It's about a quarter of the public. These are kind of fence sitters, still making up their mind, is it happening or not, is it human and natural, et cetera. A group that's about 10 percent that we call the disengaged, and these are people who say, you know, I've heard of global warming before, but I really don't know anything about it. A group we call the doubtful, that's about 15 percent.

These are people who say, ah, I don't think it's happening. But if it is, it's probably just natural cycles, nothing we've had anything to do with. You know, nothing we can do anything about. So I don't really pay that much attention to it, but I don't think of it much as a problem. And then last but not least is a group we call the dismissive. And that's about 10 percent of the public. These are people who are firmly convinced it's not happening, not human caused, and many of them are what we would lovingly call conspiracy theorists.

They say it's a hoax. It's scientists making up data. It's a U.N. plot to take away American sovereignty. It's Al Gore and his friends trying to get rich. And many other such variants of those kind of arguments. And so the important thing here is, one, that there are all these different audiences within the American public, each of which is responding to this issue in a very different way, coming at it from a very different perspective, but also that the dismissive, those that really are - I mean, and they're quite vocal, actually - they're very mobilized. They're very engaged. Given the opportunity, they will talk a lot about this issue. They're only 10 percent, and yet they appear much larger because they tend to dominate many of, you know, much of the public square, essentially.

FLATOW: Hmm. You know, and so they're getting the attention maybe because of our media being so polarized also.

LEISEROWITZ: Well, that's right. I mean, look, there's a basic imperative, especially in commercial media, to - that controversy sells.


LEISEROWITZ: And so - especially in the 24/7 cable environment, where you're desperate for eyeballs, you know, which would you rather see, somebody who's methodically and deliberately laying out the science of climate change or two people yelling at each other and getting...


LEISEROWITZ: ...into a fight. So unfortunately, the media itself has some structural issues that make it harder to have a reasonable conversation.

FLATOW: So what does the public want their elected officials and their corporations to do?

LEISEROWITZ: Well, what we see, interestingly, across the board is that Americans want a whole variety of actors, including corporations in particular, but the government officials and notably themselves, other citizens, to begin to take actions on this issue. And again, this is across political lines, though again there are differences, Republicans not quite as involved and engaged as Democrats, but nonetheless still majorities in most cases. And in a few cases we see some really interesting things, where, for instance, back to that six Americas idea again, where the alarmed and the concerned, you know, really support things like regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, the dismissive tend to be very opposed to that because the dismissive turned out to be pretty against any kind of government interference or intervention in markets or in society, and that's really the - what many of them fear.

They'll complain about climate change, and they'll argue about the science, but what really seems to motivate many of them is this underlying fear. They perceive risk not of climate change, but that government is going to have to play a bigger role in shaping our society. And that, to them, is an anathema. That's something they're deeply concerned about, and as a result, they oppose things like that.

But when you look at a policy like should the nation make a major investment in clean energy, everybody supports that. I mean, in some cases, we found nine out of 10 Americans support a national investment in clean energy. And the point here is that there are many roads to Damascus. People come to support the exact same policy, albeit for very different reasons. The alarmed and the concerned, they support clean energy because they're worried about carbon emissions and, you know, reducing climate change. But the doubtful and dismissive don't believe in climate change, but they support those exact same policies because they resonate with their deeply held values and concerns, mainly that we are so dependent on fossil fuels and other countries for the energy that runs much of our modern society.

So these issues of dependence and self-reliance, which are core American values and are really held strongly by these groups, also come into play when we talk about renewable energy.

FLATOW: Are they willing to pay more in taxes?

LEISEROWITZ: They are willing to pay more, not necessarily in taxes. That word, in particular, has come to have all these additional meanings on them where people have their knee-jerk reactions to the term taxes. But on the other hand, people are much more willing, for instance, to say, look. I'd pay a little bit more for my electricity if it came from clean energy sources. We've asked that, you know, would you pay more for a 25 percent requirement that all electricity in the country be produced by renewable energy sources even if it cost the average household $100? And we find that there's very strong support for that, again, across party lines.

So it's not that people aren't willing to pay something and, in fact, I would suggest that most people would like to do what they think is the right thing. Problem is, we just generally don't make it easy for them.

FLATOW: Yeah. And you say that by a margin of 3-1, Americans say they would be more likely to vote for a political candidate who supports a, quote, "revenue neutral tax shift." What does that mean?

LEISEROWITZ: Yeah. Really interesting. So we all remember now that there was this big fight in this country over cap and trade, you know, this market mechanism that was put forward a couple of years ago which did not pass. At the same time, there's been a whole other community of scholars that have looked and then proposing a different approach, which is basically that you increase taxes on something that we think is, in this case, is a bad, fossil fuel use, and decrease an equivalent amount in taxes on something that we all think of is good, which is income, income taxes. And so this is often called a tax swap that, basically, we don't let the elected officials, we don't give Congress a cent more, but that we increase taxes on fossil fuels and decrease taxes on people's income tax by an equivalent amount.

And what's interesting about that is who supports that? We see everyone from Al Gore, on the one hand, to very conservative former Representative Bob Inglis, on the other, liberal institutions like Brookings Institute, to the very conservative American Enterprise Institute, support this exact same idea. And what we, again, find is that, as you just said, 3-1 American support that, including Republicans, 2-1, say that they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports that kind of a policy.

FLATOW: Well, do you then think that this will be raised, these issues of Americans wanting some action, they want some more renewable energies? Can this be an issue in the election year this year?

LEISEROWITZ: Wonderful question. We don't really know. I mean, I wish I had a crystal ball for this year, but I don't. And I mean, what we have seen, however, is that, for instance, President Obama just - I think about a week ago - gave an interview in Rolling Stone where he said that he was planning to make climate change an issue in this campaign. We'll see how it plays out.

Clearly, climate change does not rise to the level of national priority for most Americans as the economy and unemployment and, you know, other kinds of issues like that. I mean, that's perfectly understandable. But nonetheless, because the parties have seemingly drifted apart so far in terms of their views of climate change and climate change science, that perhaps there's going to be a robust discussion about which of these two approaches do people prefer.

FLATOW: You know, as this horserace gets going down the stretch here this year, we're going to be seeing polls come out virtually every week, right?



FLATOW: But I'm asking you, how many of them are going to ask any of these questions you've asked about, you know, climate change, global warming, alternative energies? It seems like when you look at the polling, the exit polling, whatever that the pollsters asked, they hardly ever asked these kinds of questions in those polls.

LEISEROWITZ: That's generally true - I mean, not completely true. I mean, Gallup does ask questions about this on a regular basis. Pew asks questions about this on a regular basis and a number of other places, but you're right.

I mean, look, the pollsters generally are following very closely what happen - what's currently in the news, and so the media plays a huge role here in setting the agenda. What are the issues that we're going to argue about in this election? Well, we don't know in part because we don't yet know not only how are the media going to report it, but what are the issues that are going to be happening, the events that are happening at the moment? You know, is unemployment up or is unemployment down? You know, does Israel attack Iran or not? If they do or we, you know, go into that kind of a confrontational stance, you know, nobody is going to be talking about climate change in that kind of a situation. So that's why no one can look ahead, months ahead and say, yeah, this will be the issues that's going to be, you know, top on most people's minds when they're going into the voting booth.

FLATOW: But shouldn't you at least offer the people you're polling the option of checking that box as one of the issues?

LEISEROWITZ: In terms of?

FLATOW: Of, you know, as climate change or renewable energy, things like that. The choice is not even offered on the sheet of things that you - that is on your radar screen.

LEISEROWITZ: Yeah. Well, this is actually a really important point, is that when you look at - and I'll just come back to media coverage as an example. You know, for most people, this is an issue that's invisible. I mean, you can look out your window right this moment, and there's CO2 pouring out of tailpipes, out of smokestacks, out of buildings, but you can't see it, and likewise you can't see the impacts unless you know where to look. In fact, the only way most Americans even know about this issue is because of what they've learned about it in the media. They're not reading the peer-reviewed literature. They don't know scientists personally. They're learning about it through the media. And when the media doesn't report this issue, it's literally out of sight and out of mind.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is there a difference between the national poll you conducted and registered voters? Do they have different opinions about it?

LEISEROWITZ: No. In fact, that's exactly what we did in this study, is that we asked people, are you registered to vote? And we only looked at those Democrats, Republicans and independents who are registered because, obviously, those are the people who will actually walk into the voting booth.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So these are the kinds of people, exactly, who the politicians want to know about, the registered voters?

LEISEROWITZ: Absolutely.

FLATOW: And have you gotten any reaction from them at all?

LEISEROWITZ: I think there's a lot of interest and, I mean, in fact that as I look back at the bigger picture, we've kind of gone through this, you know, this - I don't know if it's a cycle, but it's certainly is a set of shifts where everybody was talking about climate change and sustainability and global environmental problems, if you remember back in 2007 and 2008. And then, suddenly, everybody has stopped talking about it. And, in fact, for many people, the term - using the word on global warming or climate change in political discourse was seen as something you shouldn't do. I think what we may be at the beginning of is to be able to bring these words back into our political discourse and, actually, as a point of discussion about how do we move forward as a society?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Anthony Leiserowitz of the - he's the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication at Yale. How can you follow up with this? Can you keep coming up with new polls so we can follow this?

LEISEROWITZ: Oh, absolutely. We'll be doing this at least twice a year and, of course, we have lots of other colleagues around the country that are also surveying on this exact same topics.

FLATOW: And will we know if this does move into the - more into the political discourse as well as the public discourse?

LEISEROWITZ: Well, I think we'll see it. I mean, first of all, you can see it in the amount of - number of times that the president talks about this, that candidate Mitt Romney talks about this, as well as across the board. I mean, remember, it's not just the presidential election. There are some Senate races and congressional races all over this country. And what we're seeing is that a lot of people are beginning to ask the question about climate change.

And let me add this because the same study also found that many Americans are beginning to talk about or think about in their own mind or more importantly connect the dots between climate change and this incredible spate of extreme weather that we've experienced over the past year and a half. I mean, last year, 2011, we had over $14 billion disasters, OK? It was an all-time record in the United States.

And in this survey, we actually asked people, you know, have you - did you actually experience one of these extreme weather events or disasters? Eight out of 10 Americans say yes. Were you harmed by these events? One-third of Americans say that, yes, they were harmed a substantial amount by one of these events. And then last, how are you interpreting these events? Do you think that global warming made any of these events worse? And what we find is large majorities of Americans are already beginning to say yes to that question. You know, 72 percent of Americans, for instance, think that global warming made the record warm winter we've just experienced, and in some place still experiencing, worse. Likewise, the record summer temperatures we saw last year, or the drought in Texas and Oklahoma, 69 percent of Americans think that climate change played at least some role in that.

So what it does is it begins to open up this conversation where we're no longer talking about global climate change exclusively, but also about what does that mean for us locally, where we live.

FLATOW: And that goes to what you were saying before, no one can see carbon dioxide, but they can see the storms.

LEISEROWITZ: That's right.

FLATOW: You can see the hurricanes...

LEISEROWITZ: That's right.

FLATOW: ...the tornadoes and things and try to connect the dots themselves if no one else is going to connect the dots for them.

LEISEROWITZ: That's exactly right.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.

LEISEROWITZ: Thank you, Ira. It's great to be with you.

FLATOW: I'll look forward to your next poll. Anthony Leiserowitz is director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication at Yale University, and one of the people behind this new survey out this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.