May 20, 2009
Public Opinion Cool on Global Warming
Public opinion on global warming lags far behind the rhetoric and apparent commitment shown by President Obama and other elected officials, according to reports today from Andy Revkin at the New York Times (in print and on his DotEarth blog).
"The latest in an annual series of polls from the Pew Research Center on people's top priorities for their elected leaders shows that America and President Obama are completely out of sync on human-caused global warming," Revkin writes, pointing out that "Mr. Obama stressed the [global warming] issue throughout his campaign and several times in his inaugural speech, mentioning stabilizing climate in the same breath as preventing nuclear conflict at one point."
As Revkin reports, the Pew poll found global warming ranked dead last among 40 concerns ranked by the 1,503 respondents of the poll:
"Here's the list from top to bottom, with the economy listed as a top priority by 85 percent of those polled and global warming 30 percent: the economy, jobs, terrorism, Social Security, education, energy, Medicare, health care, deficit reduction, health insurance, helping the poor, crime, moral decline, military, tax cuts, environment, immigration, lobbyists, trade policy, global warming."
It seems that with the economy in turmoil, Americans have pushed aside other concerns and, even more so than in calmer days, are spending little time worrying about global warming or the environment. According to Revkin:
"Only 30 percent of the voters deemed global warming to be "a top priority," compared with 35 percent in 2008.
"Protecting the environment," which had surged in the rankings from 2006 to 2008, dropped even more precipitously in the poll: only 41 percent of voters called it a top priority, compared with 56 percent last year.
In contrast, dealing with the nation's energy problems ranked sixth in the poll -- just behind education and social security -- with 60 percent of voters endorsing it as a top priority."
With gas prices falling precipitously over the last several months (prices at the pump seem to be the only thing falling faster than the value of people's retirement accounts), public concern for energy issues has also slipped somewhat from June, when it ranked #2 in a similar Gallup poll of top public concerns. Still, the salience of energy costs and energy independence still seems far higher than global warming for the American public.
The poll also makes abundantly clear that, above all else, Americans will clearly be judging just about every public policy proposal through the lens: "is this good for the economy and for my job?"
All this said, it's also fair to say that polls that silo complex and interlinking issues like "global warming," "energy," "the environment," etc. are not the best indicators of the potential success or failure of broad policy proposals. For example, President Obama or others could make a clear and convincing argument that a policy to reduce global warming pollution will raise revenue that we can invest in clean energy technologies, creating new energy industries and jobs, increasing the efficiency of our homes and business, cutting our oil dependency, etc. (Nancy Pelosi seemed to frame things that way in the Chronicle yesterday). In that case, the polling figures for "global warming" as an isolated issue will clearly not be the most accurate barometer of the proposal's popularity.
Still, Obama and other leaders beware: these numbers would seem to point to a very uphill battle for any proposal framed centrally or primarily as a "climate bill," rather than an "energy independence-economic recovery-and-climate bill." Perhaps more crucially, any proposal that can be painted as bad for the economy will also most certainly run right into a brick wall of public opposition.