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):


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I’m fortunate to be able to start with a previously unpublished memo from one of the leading experts on public opinion and climate communications, Prof.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.”