Polling Expert: Is Obama’s Reluctance to Mention Climate Change Motivated by a False Assumption About Public Opinion?

Politicians’ understanding of the public’s beliefs on climate is much poorer than their understanding of the science.

I’ve talked to senior officials from the Administration as well as journalists who cover them — and both groups report that team Obama has bought into the nonsensical and ultimately self-destructive view that talking about climate is not a political winner (see “Can you solve global warming without talking about global warming?).

Now I suppose it is perversely true that if your messaging is as dreadful as the Administration’s — where you turn the triumph on healthcare reform into a political liability, where you buy into and repeat the pernicious right-wing frame on issues from the debt ceiling to clean air for kids (!) — then whatever you talk about will turn out to be a political loser.

But the fact remains that the public strongly supports climate action and aggressive clean energy policies even during the deep recession, even in the face of an unprecedented fossil-fuel-funded disinformation campaign during the climate bill debate — even without the White House using its bully pulpit to tip the scales further (see “Memo to policymakers: Public STILL favors the transition to clean energy” and links below):

From what you've read and heard, in general, do you favor or  oppose setting limits on carbon dioxide emissions and making companies  pay for their emissions, even if it may mean higher energy prices?

This confusion about public opinion and messaging extends far beyond politicians to many in the progressive community and media.  So I’ll be doing a series of posts in the coming weeks to set the record straight.

I’m fortunate to be able to start with a previously unpublished memo from one of the leading experts on public opinion and climate communications, Prof. Edward Maibach of George Mason University.  He is Director of their Center for Climate Change Communication and a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Communication.

Maibach has been involved in some of the most in-depth, multi-year polling on this subject, the widely cited “Climate Change in the American Mind Series.”  He discusses his findings, and why they are at odds with Obama’s silence on climate change, below:

Is President Obama’s Reluctance to Mention Climate Change Motivated by a False Assumption About Public Opinion?

Ed Maibach

In a recent story by Juliet Eilperin about actions under consideration by the administration to raise vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, Jonathan Lash of the World Resources Institute gave voice to his concerns that the President has gone silent on the issue of climate change:

“I don’t blame the president for the failure of climate legislation, but I do hold him accountable for allowing opponents to fill the void with misinformation and outright lies about climate change,” [Lash] said. “By excising ‘climate change’ from his vocabulary, the president has surrendered the power that only he has to explain challenging issues and advance complex solutions for our country.”

The President’s near-total silence on this issue throughout 2011 is perplexing given the clarity of his past statements about the need to deal with the threat.  Perhaps he has concluded that the issue has evolved into such a political loser that even speaking the words will jeopardize his plans.   If that is indeed the reason for his silence, findings contained in two research reports released last month – one by me and my colleagues at George Mason and Yale, and the other by a team at Stanford – indicate that the President would be wise to reassess his assumptions.

The Yale/George Mason study – Public Support for Climate & Energy Policies in May 2011 – shows that despite political polarization in Washington D.C., public support for a variety of climate change and energy policies remains high, across party lines:

Issue Priority & Support for Action

  • 71 percent of Americans say global warming should be a very high (13%), high (27%), or medium (31%) priority for the president and Congress, including 50 percent of Republicans, 66 percent of Independents and 88 percent of Democrats.
  • 91 percent of Americans say developing sources of clean energy should be a very high (32%), high (35%), or medium (24%) priority for the president and Congress, including 85 percent of Republicans, 89 percent of Independents, and 97 percent of Democrats.
  • Majorities of Americans want more action to address global warming from corporations (65%), citizens themselves (63%), the U.S. Congress (57%), President Obama (54%), as well as their own state and local officials.
  • Despite ongoing concerns about the economy, 67 percent of Americans say the U.S. should undertake a large (29%) or medium-scale effort (38%) to reduce global warming, even if it has large or moderate economic costs.
  • 82 percent of Americans (including 76% of Republicans, 74% of Independents, and 94% of Democrats) say that protecting the environment either improves economic growth and provides new jobs (56%), or has no effect (26%). Only 18 percent say environmental protection reduces economic growth and costs jobs.

Support for Specific Policies

  • 84 percent of Americans support funding more research into renewable energy sources, including 81 percent of Republicans, 81 percent of Independents, and 90 percent of Democrats.
  • 68 percent of Americans support requiring electric utilities to produce at least 20% of their electricity from renewable energy sources, even if it costs the average household an extra $100 a year, including 58 percent of Republicans, 64 percent of Independents, and 82 percent of Democrats.
  • Majorities support local policies, including installing bike lanes on city streets (77%), more public transportation (80%), requiring all new homes to be more energy efficient (71%), changing zoning to promote mixed development (57%), decreasing sprawl (56%), and promoting more energy efficient apartments instead of single family homes (52%).

The Stanford study The Impact of Candidates’ Statements about Climate Change on Electoral Success in 2010: Experimental Evidences – provides even more direct evidence that climate change is not a political loser, but rather is a political winner for both Democrats and Republicans.  Specifically, the study shows thatendorsing the existence of warming, human causation, and the need for ameliorative action” wins votes among both Democrats and Independents, and does not lose votes among Republicans. “These results suggest that by taking a green position on climate, candidates of either party can gain the votes of some citizens while not alienating others.”

— Ed Maibach

Related Posts:

“Political candidates get more votes by taking a “green” position on climate change – acknowledging that global warming is occurring, recognizing that human activities are at least partially to blame and advocating the need for action – according to a June 2011 study by researchers at Stanford University.”

30 Responses to Polling Expert: Is Obama’s Reluctance to Mention Climate Change Motivated by a False Assumption About Public Opinion?

  1. David Fox says:

    Obama is a corporatist, if you just view him this way, all of his actions and decisions come clear. The Obama of the 2008 campaign does not exist and never did.

  2. Alan Nogee says:

    I agree that the polls provide support that talking about climate can be a winner. And it is clearly important in winning the long-run debate and battles. On the other hand, this and prior polls also provide support for the contention that talking about clean energy has broader and deeper support than climate. There does not have to be any contradiction between leading with the more resonant clean energy message to frame policy discussions, and following with making the climate connection, especially when that can be done positively, educating on climate as one very important benefit of clean energy. This discussion often gets too polarized, in my opinion.


  3. RH factor says:

    At the risk of sounding like a Conspiracist, the right are running off the page crazy because Obama is “their’ corporate boy. A fraud Duped!

    It’s an orchestration forget what they say look at their actions and starting with his cabinet, the BP sill do it go down 1 by 1 educate yourselves please — Obama is to the right of Nixon and perhaps Reagan – go ahead and look factually and you will feel like I do non represented — again and again and thats mainstream science.

  4. George Ennis says:

    I see the Guardian had an interesting column today titled

    “The world needs to prepare for a climate sceptic [Rick Perry] defeating Obama.

    The GOP senses that when it comes to the survival of the Obama presidency there is blood in the water. The sharks are circling and unless he can pull off something with respect to his speech tonight I expect it is all but over.

    Most of the wounds that were inflicted on the Obama presidency were self inflicted. He had choices to make on any number of progressive issues including climate change and he decided not to act. Instead he pursued bipartisanship with rightwing extremists who are prepared too go to any length including brining down the US economy if it helps them defeat Obama. Now Obama has achieved neither bipartisanship (if that was ever possible) or the promise his presidency offered to the US in 2008.

  5. Paul Magnus says:

    Obama is just didn’t have it to make the difference…

  6. Anarchy Wolf says:

    Exactly, he is in the pocket of the corporate industrialist class. He has been from the beginning, one of the biggest election con jobs in American history.

  7. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    The Whitehouse hides its motive for its total silence on climate, which is evidently the paramount threat to our civilization, behind the facade of “a false assumption about public opinion.”

    It is simply not credible that Whitehouse staffers have failed to notice and report the data Joe describes above. Hell, you can be sure that it is somebody’s job to monitor what Joe (“the most influential climate blogger”) writes about Whitehouse climate policy.

    Calling Obama a corporatist doesn’t actually explain his silence on climate any better. That he’s taken campaign funding from corporations is a matter of record, but notably that includes corporations on both sides of the climate action fence.

    Moreover, the major corporations have a planning horizon of at least 20 years, meaning that the looming climate disruption of their operations and markets is already a serious concern in their strategic planning. (Those few so fundamentally stupid as to actually deny the science are surely the exception to the rule).

    From this perspective there are undeclared constraints on both corporations and the Whitehouse to responding to climate destabilization. When, for instance, did anyone hear the CEO of Google, or Gates, or Soros vilifying the inaction ?

    While there is predictably a cabal of the far-right plutocrats who view climate destabiization as a profitable means of achieving ‘lebensraum’ – effectively a global cull of population by famine and disease that decimates corporate labour costs and deflects looming resource shortages, such an ambition is doubtless anathema to the majority of the US establishment.

    Yet what that centreground of the US establishment faces is the rise of China towards global dominance and the end of US hegemony. It needs no more that the ‘real politique’ of deeply nurtured American nationalism to view intensifying climate destabilization as a critical tool for toppling the Chinese communist government and replacing it with something more pliant – like Yeltsin’s Russia.

    Such a policy goal would demand that the US population be kept uninformed of the real climate threat for as long as possible, for once it becomes aware the pressure for commensurate action will be irresistable. It also demands the cover, both nationally and internationally, for abject Democrat inaction of a circus of denial from the republican party, with deluded nutters and bigots having a field day.

    That such a policy converges very neatly with the interests of oil producers like Saudi Arabia does not lessen its credibility in the slightest. They are merely useful to maintaining the necessary circus – for instance via their Fox News holdings.

    This nationalist policy of deflecting China’s challenge to US global dominance, which specifically demands Obama’s silence on climate, appears to make rather more sense than assuming that the Whitehouse remains unaware of the polls – for years on end – on an issue as critical as climate destabilization.



  8. Frank Zaski says:

    If the President has “false assumptions” about public opinion on environmental issues, then the BALL IS IN OUR COURT to support him with the best information, interpretation and even framing. His advisors, speech writers and many other political figures, media, etc. could also use it.
    Does CAP have good contacts in the administration? If CAP and others reading this blog have good, concise SUMMARIES OF TALKING POINTS AND FRAMING (sort of like parts above), please pass it along to the President, plus many others and us readers. We can share them with our local, state and federal candidates.
    Good articles are not enough for some. We also need an interpretation of what it means and how to use it.
    This might be a better approach than criticizing, degrading and promising to withhold votes.

  9. EDpeak says:

    Most of the wounds that were inflicted..were were self inflicted?

    Try this: since “jobs, jobs, jobs” is the largest reason for the wounds, we can say: “most of the wounds that were inflicted, were inflicted by the time Obama was sworn in!” Worst economic mess since Great Depression and some 8.8 million jobs lost and non partisan CBO says Stimulus worked..(See “Stimulus added jobs — but not enough” on cnn) CBO says it created or saved some 5 million jobs..even former advisor to McCain, Zandi says stimulus and other steps created 2.7 million..but what’s the political reality? He didn’t create/save a full NINE million jobs more, so, Obama must pay for the massive recession which Bush and the deregulators created.

    Think I’m some pro-Obama “liberal”? Think again! Obama is light years to the right of sanity and miles to the right of what would be considered centrist or even (in places) considered ‘conservative’ in Europe and elsewhere…

    But progressives have to stop the MISDIAGNOSIS they are prone to over and over again, for decades now, it’s always “if only he was less cowardly, fought more” whether about Bill Clinton or Obama or congressional fights, they assume that the politicans and ALL their advisors are just TOO DUMB to know the best tactics…this is a misdiagnosis.

    If you misdiagnose, you’re not going to help formulate positive change..

    The misdiagnosis is too kind in some ways (they are not too stupid, or too scared some of those Democrats in Congress *agree* with some republican politicies) and in other ways, the opposite (The Democrats aren’t stupid, at presidents they cannot be too much more progressive than what they can get enough votes in congress from, a place that includes Democrats who are either right-wing on some issues, or are afraid..but not of Republicans..afraid of the corporate powers that will unseat them if they stick their necks out)

    Stop daydreaming through the delusion that we are just much, much much smater tacticians than the politicians and their many advisors, and face reality, the legalized bribes and legalized extortion that is our money-based political system is rigged so that even the Democrats who are not right-wing leaning (which is a smaller group, but not tiny) can only maneuver so muc..yes, it’s MUCH more fun to vent at the democrats, but much less’s much less fun, to roll up our sleeves and change this rigged system to something saner, or at least, something rigged-but-not-quite-as-rigged as the current system..

  10. Michael Tucker says:

    I firmly believe President Obama simply cannot handle political criticism and all government attempts to protect the environment or public health become political. He truly cannot handle confrontation, unusual for someone trained in the law, and avoids it at all cost. That is why he scuttled the new ozone regs. He did not want to listen to the howls of Republicans in congress, and howls from the rabid radical conservative media, at the price tag EPA foolishly placed on the cost of implementation. He can tolerate the howls from his base because they are much easier for him to tune out. The public opinion polls do not make any noise and the only polls politicians really care about concern elections or popularity, not policy. If progressives had a media presence as reactionary, popular and ubiquitous as conservatives do things might be different.

  11. Ken says:

    Nice poll, but the only poll that matters is the poll of likely voters, which this study is not. Obama and his advisors tailor their message to likely voters.

    Look, Obama is not the problem – he has delivered on every campaign promise, or tried to deliver. The problem is that Americans do not vote anymore. In the last congressional election turnout was less than 40%. So obviously even if a majority believes in climate change, a determined minority can easily dictate their terms.

    And they are!

  12. What the public thinks has not mattered for many years.

    Obama’s calculus concerns only what will (and won’t) trigger opposition from corporations.

  13. Frank Zaski says:

    The solution is to get a very high voter turnout of Democrats and even Independents. Note, in Yale’s latest climate report (published yesterday) Independents seem closed to Democrats on their views on global warming.
    Also, an overlooked target group, women are more open to GW solutions then men. But, the Administration and many organizations like CAP have to coordinate strategies.

  14. Brian R Smith says:

    It’s tough, every day, to be this well informed, to be certain that the political opportunities to address climate, energy & the the economy are being squandered needlessly because of miss-perception, bad advice and a right wing, oil-soaked death wish that should never been allowed develop unchallenged.

    It’s tough because as one small town voter I have few options to influence the outcome. So I am glued to the proposition that my voice makes a difference as part of the larger climate movement, as does everyone’s, –but ONLY IF THE MOVEMENT BECOMES UNIFIED AND ORGANIZED ENOUGH TO BE POLITICALLY EFFECTIVE IN WASHINGTON, and not just in the long term (as in “maybe we’ll have a shot at climate issues in 2016”).

    Many have called for an ambitious coalition of climate leaders that could raise funds and launch a serious national media campaign to educate and mobilize the public. Easy to say, hard to come up with, but I believe it’s critical. I am working on a letter to some of the science, policy, business & movement leaders to ask for their thoughts & will report back.

    First, I am sending a letter to every climate hawk I can find in congress suggesting they band together and urgently request a conference with the President to demand science-based climate policy, lobby for action on linking jobs with the need for a post-oil economic incentives, and straighten him out on the change his base believes in. Is there a dream team that could influence Obama? Is this just naive?

  15. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe mentions health care reform as a failure of “messaging” by the Obama administration, but I think there is a different lesson to be learned there.

    Public opinion polls have consistently shown strong majority support for a single-payer, “Medicare For All” nonprofit health insurance system under open, accountable, efficient public administration.

    Yet the Obama administration declared at the very start of the health care reform debate that single-payer was “off the table”, and systematically excluded advocates of single-payer from their discussions. They likewise rejected a “public option” even though Obama in 2008 campaigned on his “strong support” for a public option.

    Instead, the Obama administration, as well as both Republican and Democratic Senators, worked with insurance corporation lobbyists to enact health care “reform” based on a 30-year-old Republican proposal, the “individual mandate”, which entrenches the for-profit insurance corporations as the foundation of America’s health care system.

    So it should not be surprising that the Obama administration is hiding behind false views of public opinion on climate change, while simultaneously working to massively expand oil drilling and coal mining, not to mention thwarting long-overdue EPA ozone regulations at the behest of the fossil fuel industry.

    Yes, the Obama administration has increased support for renewable energy and efficiency. But as far as I can tell, their support for the fossil fuel corporations has vastly outstripped their modest increases in support for alternatives, and they flatly refuse to frame the issues in terms of the climate change threat.

  16. Solar Jim says:

    This is our story of the Silence Of The Lambs and the big bad Koched-up, investment banked-up, Exxoned-up wolves and all their weak-kneed, fearful addicts.

    Money is the root of all evil they say, and our entire government is lobbied, campaigned and corporatized by Federal Reserve Notes.

    Have a nice hurricane, wildfire, flood or drought. Fade to black . . . except for D.C. which is aglow in red, ink that is – public debt being excellent for the financing wealthy (who can sit and watch the money roll in).

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    That is precisely the situation, and both Chomsky and Nader nailed Obama as a corporate stooge and accurately predicted his behaviour. Nader said on election night, as the conned ‘Hope Fiends’ capered, ‘Prepare to be disappointed’. What has surprised me is the intensity and extent of Obama’s betrayal. He seems disinclined, or, more to the point, his controllers seem unwilling, to throw the rabble even a single bone to gnaw on. The double-cross is being ground in, almost vindictively. That has me pretty convinced that the plan remains for Obama to serve but one term, and be replaced by a Republican ultra-Perry the obvious choice. The Hope Fiends are to be so demoralised that they stay away from politics for good, delivering the country to the Mad Hatters, in perpetuity, or until the global system collapse renders elections irrelevant.

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You may have a point regarding China, the destabilisation of which is the USA’s ruling elite’s greatest ever priority. But I suspect that this elite is also interested in a Malthusian solution to global over-population. After all the amount of time that elite organs like the Bilderberg Group and the Trilateral Commission spent on devising plans for global population reduction was great, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. This is in their public pronouncements, and much of their deliberations is kept secret. We must work out a reason why they wish a climate destabilisation catastrophe to occur, because these creatures are not all Dunning-Krugerites, like the imbecile rabble that they have raised and armed with rhetorical pitch-forks.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ED, Walter Karp in ‘Indispensable Enemies’ said it all, concerning Democratic and Republican co-operation in dudding the public and serving the real rulers, the money power. And it was published in 1973. There is a new edition, I believe. Heartily recommended.

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Healthcare reform was the archetypal Obama betrayal. Every civilized country on the planet puts the health of its people before business interests, save the USA, where health is just another commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. While even Cuba, under a fifty year trade blockade, can at least guarantee its people’s health, the USA still has millions whose teeth rot in their head or who cannot afford even the life-saving treatment that they require, all in order to maximise corporate profits. And Obamacare, despite the Republican hysterics, did nothing to change that brutal reality.

  21. Imagine how the gay rights community would respond if Obama refused to even mention the word “gay” or “lesbian” and was totally silent on the entire topic of gay and lesbian rights?

    How would African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans respond if Obama refused to talk about racial equality or to even use the word “race”?

  22. Kota says:

    Interesting…would answer many loose questions.

  23. Shaheer says:

    Advantages of climate destabilization:

    1: Permanent military contracts and fossil fuel needs.
    2: Soaring prices for commodities like water, food, and wood.
    3: Opening of Arctic which contains 1/4 of the worlds fossil fuel and mineral wealth.
    4: Prevention of developing countries from developing and utilizing resources.
    5: Opening of Arctic for fisheries.
    6: Development of new technologies in weapons, geoengineering, bioengineering, etc.
    7: Rapid deployment of nuclear technologies.

  24. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Mulga and Kota –
    thanks for your responses.

    The enduring nature of the US extreme right’s motivation for advancing climate destabilization is to my mind neatly illustrated by an account from the 1930s, when a US paper sent a young reporter to interview Mahatma Ghandi, who was then leading a notable but unsuccessful campaign for India’s independence.

    The young hack opened with the line,
    “Well Mr Ghandi, do you really think the Indian people should have the same standard of living as the people of Great Britain ?”

    Ghandi reportedly looked at him in silence for a moment, and then said,
    “Young man, it has taken the resources of the whole world to give those at the heart of the British Empire their standard of living. How many worlds do you think it will take to do the same for India ?”



  25. thomasrodd says:

    The comments about China are thought-provoking, thanks. What’s your source for the Gandhi quote? Also you should correct the spelling of Gandhi if you happen to use the quote again.

  26. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Thomas – I suspect the source of the quote was Fritz Schumacher’s classic work “Small is Beautiful”, but it may have been pers/comm from an old friend who was a student of Gandhi’s teachings around the time it was published.

    As for my spelling, Oops! The longer I use a PC the worse it gets.



  27. Kevin says:

    Um, just maybe it is because he really wants Congress to take up his jobs initiative and he knows:
    1. It is nearly impossible because the Rs will block but he’s trying to give them the least excuse to do so so that people can see what the real motives are.
    2. He knows the tea party goes ballistic whenever climate is mentioned (why do all the R candidates but one decry climate?).
    3. He knows the TP is extremely energized and organized.
    4. He knows that climate activists are disorganized and won’t lift a finger to help elect Ds, won’t flood Congress with calls and so on.
    5. And oh, by the way, jobs are polling as a much more urgent issue among voters than climate and they are judging his performance against that metric.
    Seems pretty clear to me. You can say he is in the pocket of corporations — I say he is reading the priorities of the people, he knows how strong his opponents are strong and his friends a bit feckless.

  28. Kevin says:

    I agree. The Yale study has excellent info — it shows the effort should focus on innoculating independents against further erosion on climate and then working to activate them and Ds. They are closer to Ds than Rs, and the Rs are going to have a more difficult time as the TP pulls them further from the rest of the electorate.

  29. Kevin says:

    Re this: “But, the Administration and many organizations like CAP have to coordinate strategies.” Good idea provided we can drop the shrillness, which will turn off the folks in the middle. [I understand venting and it is appropriate at times, but I’ve begun to occasionally wonder if this site is being spamed by trolls from the right. Paranoid perhaps, but the sort of things appearing in the comments seem to be working very hard to get folks to walk away from the polls in disgust.]

  30. Sasparilla says:

    I have to agree David, very well put.