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Opinion polls underestimate Americans’ concern about the environment and global warming

By Joe Romm  

"Opinion polls underestimate Americans’ concern about the environment and global warming"


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When asked “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?” about 49 percent of respondents answered the economy or unemployment, while only 1 percent mentioned the environment or global warming.

But when asked, “What do you think will be the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?” 25 percent said the environment or global warming, and only 10 percent picked the economy. In fact, environmental issues were cited more often than any other category, including terrorism, which was only mentioned by 10 percent of respondents.

I have written about the work of Stanford’s Jon Krosnick before (see “USA Today: Some scientists misread poll data on global warming controversy” and “Large majority of Americans continue to believe global warming is real and trust scientists“).

I hope to come back to explore this work in more detail when the BP oil disaster and climate bill news slow down a bit.  For now, here’s the news release by Mark Shwartz from Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford:

When pollsters ask Americans to name the most important problem facing the country, the environment is rarely mentioned. But this time-honored polling question masks the public’s true concern about environmental issues, according to Stanford University researchers.

“For years, the wording used in traditional surveys has systematically underestimated the priority that the public has placed on global warming and the environment,” said Jon Krosnick, a professor of communication and of political science at Stanford. “To fully understand public concern about these issues, traditional surveys should be asking a different question.”

In a recent study, Krosnick and his colleagues focused on what public opinion experts call the “most important problem” (MIP) question. Developed by pollster George Gallup in the 1930s, the MIP question has become a staple of many national surveys.

As an example, the researchers cited the following question from a September 2009 New York Times/CBS News Poll: “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?”

In that poll, only 1 percent of respondents mentioned the environment, while 41 percent said the economy or jobs. “In prior surveys going back to 2007, the percentage of those who mentioned environmental issues never rose above 3 percent,” Krosnick said. “These results seem to suggest that few if any Americans place top priority on the government dealing with global warming or the environment.”

But the Stanford study revealed that when the question was reframed in terms of the most serious problem facing the planet if left unchecked, the environment and global warming rose to the top. “How a question is phrased can significantly change the results,” said Krosnick, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment.

Internet survey

For the Stanford study, the research team analyzed the results of two national surveys. The first was a September 2009 Internet poll of 906 adults, conducted by the polling firm Abt SRBI. Respondents were randomly asked one of the following open-ended questions:

1. “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?”

In this traditional MIP question, about 49 percent answered the economy or unemployment, while only 1 percent mentioned the environment or global warming.

2. “What do you think is the most important problem facing the world today?”

Substituting the word “country” with “world” produced a significant change: 7 percent mentioned environmental issues, while 32 percent named the economy or unemployment.

3. “What do you think will be the most important problem facing the world in the future?”

When asked to consider the future of the planet, 14 percent chose the environment or global warming, while economic issues slipped to 21 percent.

4. “What do you think will be the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?”

This time, 25 percent said the environment or global warming, and only 10 percent picked the economy or unemployment.

“Thus, when asked to name the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it, one-quarter of all Americans mentioned either global warming or the environment,” Krosnick said. “In fact, environmental issues were cited more often in response to question 4 than any other category, including terrorism, which was only mentioned by 10 percent of respondents.”

Stanford-AP Environment Poll

The researchers found similar results when they analyzed a November 2009 telephone survey of 1,055 adults sponsored by the Woods Institute for the Environment and the Associated Press (AP).

When asked the traditional MIP question, “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today,” 54 percent said economic issues, and just 2 percent mentioned environmental problems.

But when asked, “What do you think will be the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it,” only 16 percent named the economy and unemployment, while 21 percent said global warming and the environment.

The Sanford-AP Environment Poll also asked, “How much effort do you think the federal government in Washington should put into dealing with the serious problems the world will face in the future if nothing is done to stop them?” Three out of four respondents said they wanted the government to devote “a great deal” or “a lot” of effort to combat serious problems, such as global warming, in the future.

“Contrary to what traditional surveys suggest, we found strong evidence that Americans attach a great deal of significance to global warming and the environment,” Krosnick said. “Therefore, to accurately measure the American public’s issue priorities, it may be useful for national surveys to include alternative questions that emphasize future problems and their solutions.”

The Stanford study is co-authored by undergraduate student Samuel B. Larson; graduate student David Scott Yeager; and Trevor Tompson, director of surveys at AP. The study was funded by the Woods Institute for the Environment.

In short, much of the public does, in fact, get it.

And this all helps explain why public polls consistently show Americans support strong action NOW to reduce emissions:

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Energy and Global Warming News for May 13th: Solar industry to reach grid parity by 2020 — IEA; U.S. to supplant Spain in solar-thermal power ›

12 Responses to Opinion polls underestimate Americans’ concern about the environment and global warming

  1. mike roddy says:

    There has always been a lot of voodoo in polling, and I’m glad some sharp guys stepped up to do this properly. Politicians need to take notice.

  2. Leif says:

    A Russian and American horse have a race in which the Russian horse wins.
    The American News reports:

    “American horse second, Russian horse second to last!”

    Statistics and polling can be very tricky and I am convinced much effort is expended to receive the poll results desired. Personally, I often see questions during a poll that require answers other than the “yes” or “no” or limited selection allowed. I usually terminate a poll when confronted with “push” questions thus tilting the results that much more.

  3. D Miller says:

    Framing is key.

    If someone had a gene that was likely to bring about fatal cancer, but the cancer had not struck yet and the person had just lost their job, if you asked them about the most important problem they were facing today, they’d likely talk about their job…

  4. Grannie Looper says:

    Higher than expected.
    If we study sSpain, the green endeavors will work very well to create havoc in the economy. Borrow money and raise taxes to purchase a much more xpensive source of electricity and kill jobs.

  5. Jeff Huggins says:

    What Shall We Conclude?

    In order to figure out what to conclude from any pieces of research, one should really “get into” them in detail, consider both quantitative and qualitative research, and do a lot more than I’m able to do, reading this, this morning.

    That said, I’ll offer a couple considerations …

    First, here, I DON’T think the case is that the answers to one question are somehow “wrong” while the answers to the other question are giving us the complete straight scoop, at least if the other aspects of methodology are sound in both cases. In other words, the answers to the questions worded in BOTH ways are telling us certain things about the issues AND about human psychology. The point is not to misinterpret or misunderstand the answers.

    Humans are fairly shortsighted and tend to focus, behaviorally, on matters that are pressing in the near term. So, if a question is worded in a way that allows that, facilitates that, or even perhaps hints at that (in its wording), then the answers to that question will most likely contain the things that most people feel are acutely pressing in the near-term. But, if a question is worded in a way that focuses the mind on the really big picture and on the longer term, people can consider that question (with whatever mixture of “cognition” and “emotion” it brings up) and provide an answer that suits the question and expresses the best of their “big picture” thinking.

    In other words, people can say “jobs and the economy are the acute pressing problems today” AND ALSO SAY “in the long term, if we don’t address it, global warming will be the largest problem the world faces”. These statements can both be reflective of how those people are feeling and thinking.

    So, yes, it’s very important to have that information. In that important sense, I agree with the main theme and point of the post. Without asking the reworded question, i.e., the one that focuses the mind on the future, one can get the impression that people don’t care about global warming. So, I think that the reworded question adds lots of value and provides necessary and helpful information. In these senses, I agree with the post’s point, of course. Bravo!

    But, to be clear, having the answer to that question doesn’t negate the answer to the (different) question posed in the other way. In other words, people are telling you two things about themselves. Indeed, when you look at both sets of results, they say what they mean (if you interpret them in the context of the full picture) AND they also indicate the aspect of “human nature” that we’ve been talking about — our normal shortsightedness (on average).

    When it comes to actual action, what do the answers to these questions tell you? They tell you (as far as I can guess from reading the brief post here) that these people would like the government to tackle BOTH problems: jobs and the economy, AND global warming. When people are thinking, and when they aren’t faced with having to make tradeoffs, they want ALL of the vitally important problems fixed — both the short-term ones and those that are perceived as the longer-term ones.

    But, the answers to these questions leave unclear what people would answer if they were faced with tradeoffs: “If the government can only address one important problem in the next six months, do you think it should be the economy or global warming?” That sort of thing.

    And, I wouldn’t conclude from these answers (at all) that “see, people get it”. Instead, I’d conclude from these answers the following: When a question essentially asks us to think in the big-picture and long-term, then a much greater number of people are shown to have great concern about global warming as a long-term issue, much more so than pollsters would conclude if they only considered answers to questions that don’t call for long-term thinking and that mix pressing short-term problems with global warming (which itself is perceived by many people as a problem that isn’t as pressing, which itself indicates that many people don’t really get it).

    In other words, the answers to the question worded in the new way tell us that many people (still not as many as should be the case) are deeply concerned about global warming as a long-term problem that should or must be addressed. But, of course, that doesn’t mean that most people “get it”. Nor does it even mean that all of these people (who answer this way) really “get it”. After all, many of those people might still think of global warming as something that we can address ten or fifteen years from now, as long as we do. In other words, many of those people may not understand the urgency of getting started. And, as mentioned, these answers don’t really tell us the answer to the “if only one or two things can be addressed in the next year” question.

    What I’m saying is this: This work adds a great deal of value, and it’s great (and fascinating) to see how the answers to the various questions are different. But, in my view, both sets of answers tell us something about the issues themselves AND about “human nature”. The task, of course, is to interpret and understand the answers to both questions, given all answers to both questions. The answers to the question worded in one way don’t “negate” the answers to the other question: Instead, taken together, they all tell us something (assuming that other aspects of methodology are sound). And — an important thing — I don’t think that we should conclude that “people ‘get it’ after all” from the answers to either question. I’m not saying that many members of the public aren’t insisting on action by the government. They are. But not enough are. And, not many people (still) are putting the degree of “pressure” on government figures that is necessary for most government figures to “commit” to addressing the problem. We’ll know when huge and sufficient numbers of people really “get” the global warming problem when tens of millions of people are boycotting the worst offenders and when millions of people are out in the streets (responsibly) demanding action. That’s when we can conclude that large numbers of people “get it”.

    Bravo to the Stanford folks. Great insight.



  6. Ronald says:

    What’s my biggest problem in the future? dying. Because it’s going to happen someday. Not next year or decade, as per my predictions, but someday.

    In the end we are all dead. so why should someone who works in a hazardous job like coal mining care about something in the far off future that they certainly probably have been told by people they trust is not going to happen anyway. About like telling soldiers in afganistan to quit smoking.

    Or as polls showed, telling teenagers that they could get cancer when they are older has less influence than telling them smoking makes their skin look bad now, or cuts their wind for sports.

    How do you get a country to care about the future when their average savings rate is zero before a severe economic resession and still only up to 4 percent when they are in that recession. In 2004, people in the US took out over 900 billion in home equity loans, presumably much of it to spend now and pay off the debt later.

    Or how to solve the obesity and other health problems. 70 percent of medical care spending would be solved by a better food diet, eliminate excessive drinking and smoking, more exercise and activity, and better concern to safety. How fast will that get fixed.

    In a personal survey of 100 percent of the people I have talked to about global warming and greenhouse gases, they may care on some abstract level, but won’t do anything politically or otherwise constructive about it. Which leaves it to Government to put in the incentives to make it happen.

  7. Genny Carroll says:

    Sarah Palin’s 2nd book is now #120 on Amazon (it hit ~#50 yesterday), and it won’t be out for more than six months.

    Gov Palin seems to understand people and what they care about.

  8. BillD says:

    The results are somewhat reassuring, but also show that Americans and our poltical system are not at all adept working toward the solution of long-term problems. I recently finished teaching a class in population ecology. Almost all of our conservation modeling looked at 50 or 100 year model runs. Perhaps such an experience is needed for people to think about the long term. Studies of geology and evolution should also encourage the longer term perspectives that seem uncommon in our society and world.

  9. Chris Winter says:

    Genny Carroll wrote: “Gov Palin seems to understand people and what they care about.”

    Not completely.

  10. J4zonian says:

    When you say “if nothing is done to stop it” in the question you bring into subconscious awareness the debate about climate and what’s been said about it, triggering that response over and above other topics (except maybe terrorism, although the wording is different.) I don’t think it necessarily means people consciously believe what they’re saying.

    The fact that 25% consider climate change important in the future (remember, this means 75% still don’t) seems likely to mean they’re confused by right wing propaganda and bad reporting and believe it’s not happening now. How far off do they think it is, would be the next logical question, and what evidence or sources do they have to support that would be the one after that. When people say they’re more concerned with economic problems than ecologic problems it means they don’t understand the relationship between the 2–that the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the ecology. All this points to a dire need for education, in basic science and the philosohy and methods of science, in climate science, in ecological science, and in critical thinking.

    The fact that the most important problem is not climate for 95% of us no matter how it’s worded is worrisome, to say the least.

    And G Carroll: Especially for people with money and a political agenda there are ways to manipulate book sales to make a book appear more popular than it is. A watch that’s stopped is still right twice a day, even though it has no understanding of time. The fact that Ms. Palin is just as stupid and psychologically disturbed, and in the same ways, as the average Amurican in no way proves that she understands anything; in fact it’s strong evidence to the contrary.

  11. prokaryote says:

    Sarah Palin’s 2nd book is now #120 on Amazon (it hit ~#50 yesterday), and it won’t be out for more than six months.

    And who bought all this books? Talking about manipulation. Why not buy some books to push it into top ranks at Amazon. And you could still resell or give them away for free.

    Oil Companies Manipulate Markets and Gouge Consumers, Harming Both Economy and Environment

    Recent federal investigations have also revealed that U.S. energy markets are susceptible to market manipulation by these oil behemoths. BP, already under investigation for allegedly manipulating the U.S. propane market in 2004, is facing new scrutiny in a federal probe about manipulation of crude oil and gasoline markets. Energy trading markets where prices for energy are set were recently deregulated, raising additional concerns that oil companies, hedge funds and investment banks are gouging consumers in the futures exchanges.

  12. Terri Lynn says:

    This shows a certain level of ignorance overall for the American people….or perhaps unawareness is a more gentle term. The United States is the biggest polluter in the world, and, in terms of harmful greenhouse gases about the worst. What people have to understand is that this directly relates to our beloved countries downward spiral in health trend. Chronic lung diesease in our most innocent population (children, 5x more vulnerable to toxic industrial waste) is up 160% in past 20 years, childhoeed cancer such as leukemia up 30% same timeframe, emerging ilnesses with women such as fibromyalgia, breast cancer, colon cancer, prostrate cancer in men….all up and scientifically proven to be 90% environmental (less than 10% of all cancer is hereditary) and even within that less than 10%, a person predisposed to some genetic gene mutation may be less likely to get cancer (if take measures to prevent) than sometone not having any hereditary link, but living within even 30 miles from an oil refinery, coal mine, nuclear power plant, cell tower and other industrial plants proven to be linked to terminal illness. Yet, we keep economic woes are our biggest problem. The U.S. is still the richest country in the world….its the allocation of funds not right. Cutting budgets in schools the worst thing we could do for our country, our children are our most valuable asset and should not bear burden of U.S. mistakes at spending money on uncessary wars. Poerful? Not. A powerful nftion takes care of its people and environment, understands that job losses due to answering the wake up call to stop oil drilling, stop denpendence on oil and coal are not as huge as lifes lost due to this dirty energy sources. That is what a resume is for. Transfer skills to something more useful. So ingrained in people’s brains that profit and materializm is so important, the human element has gone off to the wayside. God Bless America!Remember, protecting the planet means protecting people, and the US. is the biggest culprit in polluting God’s creation. Do you love our country enough to see it for what it is, and want to help heal it? Or blindfolded into staying the old status quo? Like an indivual who can stand up and say “hey I’ve made mistakes, let me learn by them” I think the strongest Americans, the strongest “Patriots” today see our wars as WRONG, our over industrialzied, over commercialized country in wrong direction. Technology is great, if only clean technology.