Beyond Thermostatic Response

Why Attitudes About Race Really Are Changing and Opinion About Climate Change Probably Is Not

The arc of the universe, at least as far as public opinion is concerned, appears to bend towards justice but not sustainability.

The Black Lives Matter protests have so far been an inspiring success in abruptly changing public opinion. According to one survey, support for the movement rose 7 points (46 to 53%) in the first week of protests after George Floyd’s murder — roughly equivalent to the upward trend of the last two years. Alongside shifting public sentiments, confederate symbology is finally being purged from public spaces, corporate America is issuing a torrent of strategic apologies and expressions of solidarity, and there has been an explosion of ideas about how to address the systemic racism of the criminal justice system.

A week before George Floyd’s murder, the latest iteration of the “Climate Change in the American Mind” survey was released by Yale and George Mason University, which found climate concern at an all-time high despite the worst economic crisis of a generation, which might be expected to have monopolized the public’s attention span. A large majority of respondents think that global warming is happening (73%), mostly human caused (62%), and are at least somewhat worried (66%), and these shares have either risen or held since last year.

Although support for racial equity and climate action are both at historic levels, the dynamics underlying public opinion on these issues are sharply distinct. While support for racial equality has markedly risen over decades, Americans have not become steadily more progressive and holistic in their view of climate change, which has remained stubbornly tied to cyclical shifts in national politics. So while activists may think about social justice and climate through the same conceptual framework, the mass public seemingly does not.

The recent surge in concern about both racial inequality and climate concern may well wane somewhat over time, especially under a Biden administration. The difference is that the long term and continued evolution of racial attitudes offers the possibility of a very different politics of race, policing, and criminal justice, but rising climate concern over the last years may well reveal itself to be a cresting wave that recedes to yet another low ebb.

America’s Thermostat on Race and Climate

Arguably the most robust model of public opinion change is the thermostatic model, which holds that survey responses are signals to political elites to adjust their positions in a particular direction, typically away from the dominant view of the party in power. “I’m very concerned” simply means “Politicians aren’t concerned enough,” even if “enough” isn’t very much. When Democrats are in power, for example, the public infers that we’re spending too little on defense and taxes are too high — an inference requiring only a basic understanding of ideological differences about salient issues. Rather than a transparent reflection of genuine attitude changes, thermostatic shifts are relative to prevailing political contexts and elite action — the hallmark of which is cyclically rising and falling trends tied to national politics.

Attitudes towards both climate and race have shown signs of thermostatic effects in recent years.

The latest iteration of the Yale and George Mason survey has been taken as counter-evidence for the “finite pool of worry” theory — wherein rising economic concerns would be expected to crowd out climate concern — but the theory has long been on shaky ground. As John Schwartz’s recently noted in reporting on the survey, and as Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger pointed out in 2009, the theory didn’t well explain the drop in climate concern during the Great Recession, since it had already been falling during the previous two years.

The thermostatic model is far better at accounting for shifts in US climate opinion. The first major inflection point in climate concern is around Obama’s 2008 election, which marked the onset of likely the sharpest decline on record and a prime example of thermostatic effects.

From 2008 to 2010, Gallup found an average drop of nearly 10 points in the share of respondents saying that the effects of global warming have already begun (61 to 50), that changes in the Earth’s temperature over the last century are due to human activities (58 to 50), that global warming poses a serious threat to them or their way of life (40 to 32), and that most scientists believe that global warming is occurring (65 to 52). Respondents saying global warming is generally exaggerated in the news also rose 13 points (35 to 48).

2008 was also the first year of the Yale and George Mason survey, which likewise found sharp declines until early 2010 — 14 points for “global warming is happening,” 11 for “mostly caused by human activity,” and 14 for “important to me personally.”

But the smoking gun for thermostatic effects is sharply falling climate concern among Democrats. From 2007 to 2011, Gallup found that Democratic respondents saying that they personally worry a great deal about global warming fell by a whopping 22 points (58 to 36), compared with only 11 points among Republicans (24 to 13).

Climate concern fell because its salience rose. From 2006 to 2010, Americans heard about “An Inconvenient Truth” and the fourth IPCC report; they took part in a presidential campaign in which both candidates had climate plans and saw a Democrat elected to office; and they witnessed a heated debate about the ill-fated Waxman-Markey bill and how much it would cost. By 2010, newspaper coverage of climate change was roughly five times what it was a decade before. In response, Americans turned down the thermostat.

The period around Trump’s election marks another thermostatic inflection point in climate attitudes. Gallup, Pew, and the “American Mind” survey found climate concern trending strongly upward leading up to the 2016 presidential election and during the first year of Trump’s presidency. The latter returned an 11 point bump for the item on scientific consensus from 2015 to 2017, and 2015 alone saw an 8 point upswing in the “personally experienced the effects of climate change” item. A 2017 Gallup poll revealed heightened environmental anxiety about Trump, with 57% of Americans saying he will do a poor job of protecting the environment, far higher than was found for Barack Obama (14%) or George W. Bush (38%) at the beginning of their first terms.

Trump was instrumental in solidifying climate concern as part of the core partisan identity of Democratic voters, showcasing the power of out-group elite cues in driving polarization. Among Democrats, Pew found about a 25 point surge since 2015 in the share saying that climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress.

Obviously, climate polarization can not be laid solely at Trump’s feet. The partisan gap has been a mainstay of climate opinion since the 1990s, and thermostatic effects from out-group elite cues have also been a major driving force of opinion shifts on climate change prior to Trump’s presidency. Recent research finds that low climate concern among the Republican public was largely driven by polarizing cues from Democratic elites, rather than the “manufactured doubt” of the fossil fuel industry, contrarian scientists, and Republican lawmakers. But prior to Trump, a great many survey items found that partisan climate concern, while it moved at different rates, also moved in the same direction. Democrats and Republicans became more and less concerned together.

The story of attitudes about race in recent years is remarkably similar, on clear display in the figures below.

% who say country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites
% who say country needs to continue making changes to give black equal rights with whites
Source: Pew Research Center. Race, immigration and discrimination (2017)
% who say Climate Change / Global Warming should be a top priority for the President and Congress
Source: Pew Research Center. More Americans see climate change as a priority, but Democrats are much more concerned than Republicans (2020)

Over the course of Trump’s term, a Monmouth University poll returned a 23 point increase (34 to 57%) in the share of registered voters who believe that police officers are more likely to use excessive force if the suspect is Black. Its latest poll also found that by far the largest share (53%) believe that race relations have worsened since Trump was elected, notably higher than respondents said about Obama towards the end of his term (43%).

But these shifts were overwhelmingly driven by Democrats in reaction to Trump, whose speech announcing his candidacy also announced his now familiar preference for bullhorns over dog whistles in inflaming and mobilizing the racial insecurities of white Americans amid the country's rapidly-changing demographics — and his willingness to inflict deep psychological harm on communities of color.

Much has been written about the political realignment of race and racial attitudes in the 20th century, as the Democratic Party became identified with civil rights and White southern and working-class Democrats defected to the Republican Party. But in fueling the flames of the so-called Great Awokening of educated White liberals — who came to express as much or more concern about racism and racial inequality than the average Black voter — Trump has helped further cement racial equality as a sine qua non of the Democratic identity. While this shift started to build steam around the protests of Michael Brown’s fatal shooting in 2014 during the tail end of Obama’s presidency, it gained noticeable momentum with Trump’s campaign and election.

By contrast, Republican concern about both climate and racial injustice remained mostly flat throughout Trump’s term.

How attitudes towards race and climate are fundamentally different

Anthony Leiserowitz, lead author of the American Mind report, considers recent increases in climate concern trends unprecedented and takes them as evidence that something fundamental has changed in the dynamics of climate opinion. “We’ve not seen anything like that in the 10 years we’ve been conducting the study,” he told the Atlantic. But not only does this view ignore the fact that climate attitudes continue to respond thermostatically to politics, but it also fails to recognize that current levels of climate concern are not in fact unprecedented — they’re largely within the margin of sampling error of 2008’s levels and therefore essentially indistinguishable.

Since pollsters began asking the public about it, the shape of climate concern has been undulating peaks and valleys coinciding with national politics — the hallmark of thermostatic dynamics.

But despite short term thermostatic shifts, attitudes about race are an entirely different story. The American public really has changed its mind about racial equality and discrimination.

The two figures below make the contrast plain.

Liberalism Policy Mood on Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation
Source: Coggins, K. E., Stimson, J. A., Atkinson, M. L., & Baumgartner, F. R. Beyond the Thermostat: A Theory of Public Opinion Change (2014)
Climate Concern
Source: Gallup. Global Warming Concern at Three-Decade High in U.S. (2017)

While opinion shifts on nearly all major policy issues have been found to adhere to the thermostatic model over a broad time frame, equity issues are the major exception — the clearest case of genuine, absolute opinion change. An analysis of a rich database, shown in the figure above, finds some thermostatic movement on race, but that the American public has steadily and dramatically become more accepting of racial equality since the mid-twentieth century, as well as of gender and sexual-orientation equality. Rather than swings in partisan politics, these shifts largely reflect changing social norms, historical focusing events, and the bravery of countless individuals in manifesting successful social movements.

But who is actually shifting on both of these issues? Here too we find another fundamental difference.

Clearly, long-term shifts on race mostly reflect the diminution of racist attitudes among White Americans. Despite Trump’s inveterate racism and the current polarization in questions about race, outright racist attitudes have fallen markedly over the last 30 years among White Democrats and Republicans, with little difference between them, according to the General Social Survey (attitudes including Blacks are “lazy,” “unintelligent,” and “lack the motivation to pull themselves out of poverty”). It seems unlikely that these trends can be chalked up wholly to social desirability bias. The largest partisan gap — and the only item showing a clear thermostatic reaction to Obama’s election — was found for the statement that too much money was being spent on improving conditions for African Americans, a reminder that questions about race are often intertwined with the role of government.

That Whites drive shifts in attitudes about race is also evident in trends in support for Black Lives Matter. Not surprisingly, for example, support among African Americans has been consistently high and rising over the last three years (rising 76 to 87%, as of this writing), but support among Whites is increasing faster (28 to 44). Notably, the largest change over this period is a roughly 20 point dip in opposition among both White and African American Republicans, breaking either to support or “unsure.”

By contrast, rising climate concern is mostly driven, not by race, but by party, which is precisely why it is thermostatic. The two surveys Yale and George Mason University conducted in 2019 found that, after controlling for party identification, African Americans aren’t more concerned than Whites, despite overall higher concern (57% versus 49%). In fact, while African Americans are about 16 percent more likely to express climate concern, they are over 7 times less likely to identify as Republican. Hispanics/Latinos, however, are more concerned than Whites, even after controlling for party identification. But overall, while different communities may well ascribe different meanings to climate change, and while different levels of exposure to air pollution may contribute, partisan identity is far and away the strongest driver of climate attitudes.

A New Politics of Climate and Criminal Justice?

With Joe Biden enjoying a nearly double-digit lead over Trump nationally, a slew of eye-opening Senate polls extending the possibility of a Democratic takeover, and reports that the Left is increasingly united on a climate plan, the prospect of sweeping federal climate action has seemingly never been higher.

How would public opinion respond to efforts to pass such legislation? Unless something really has changed, climate concern would significantly wane. As Maggie Koerth wrote for FiveThirtyEight, “Shallow politics and deep-seated psychology seem to be combining to make Americans more concerned about climate change and more interested in solutions like the Green New Deal. But history suggests that the trend will flip again once the people who want to implement that kind of plan get elected.”

That thermostatic effects would dominate climate opinion isn’t surprising since the same is true for environmental spending — Americans of both parties are less supportive of environmental spending during Democratic administrations — but thermostatic effects are still underappreciated by the climate movement, which understandably prefers the story of a long battle, nearly won, waged against nefarious forces for the hearts and minds of people who deep down are with them.

Insofar as shifting public opinion augurs well for efforts to shift policy, progress on policing, criminal justice, and other equity issues seem more likely, and indeed we are already seeing far reaching proposals getting serious consideration in Congress as well as at the state and local levels.