Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

About That Sharp Rise in Climate Concern

Poll sponsors say climate attitudes have been ‘remarkably consistent’ over two decades.

A few days ago, Scientific American reprinted an article straight from Climatewire. Titled Republican Convention Ignored Climate Threat, But Americans’ Attitudes Are Shifting, it says “Polling shows that voter concern about climate change has been growing for years and that it has not diminished as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.” We’re then told about a recent public opinion survey affiliated with Stanford University.

The New York Times reported on the same survey, beginning with this paragraph:

The number of Americans who feel passionately about climate change is rising sharply, and the issue appears likely to play a more important role in this year’s election than ever before, a new survey shows. [bold added]

How odd. A 33-page report provides details about this poll. The Conclusion page says climate views have been “remarkably consistent” over the past two decades, and are notable for their inertia.

The 2020 results do reveal some minor variation, however. This year, says the Conclusion page, more Americans:

  1. think they know more about the climate issue
  2. are more certain of their opinions
  3. consider this issue to be extremely important to them

We’re informed that this last point is “striking.” Back on page 16, we read that a subset of Americans are so concerned about climate change they consider it “extremely personally important.”

The report refers to these people as the “global warming issue public.” Back in 1997, only 9% of Americans belonged to that group. In 2020, this number has reached “an all-time high of 25%.”

But that rise has not been steady, as a chart on the same page reveals. Between 2007 and 2012 (6 surveys), the overall trend was downward by 8 points. Between 2015 and 2020 (3 surveys), the trend was upward by 12.

click to enlarge; source here

This is the wafer thin foundation for the claim that the number of voters who feel passionately is rising sharply. Neither Scientific American nor the Times told readers the trend has pointed in both directions in recent years.

page 17

The report devotes all of page 17 to hyping this particular finding while ignoring the larger context: 75% of Americans do not care deeply about climate change. Insisting that voters “may be likely” to cast votes based on climate issues is not a path to electoral victory if we’re only talking about one person out of four.

Who, exactly, is being served when university professors and journalists indulge in such un-serious thinking? If your best case scenario excludes 75% of the population, why would you encourage anyone, at any level of society, to imagine that emphasizing climate policy is a winning election strategy?

In February of this year I analyzed 13 years of polling data collected by Pew Research, which started asking about global warming in 2007 (see my posts here and here). That data indicates Americans are more likely to view climate change as a ‘top priority’ when the economy is booming. As economic worries rise, concern about the climate diminishes. I produced the infographic below at that time. Climate is represented by the red bars, versus the economy in blue:

click to enlarge; full discussion here

The day after I published part 2 of my analysis, Pew released its 2020 results. They are significant for two reasons. First, the pattern in the above graphic continued. The economy was a top priority for only 67% of respondents. That’s one point lower than the low tide of 68% back in 2007.

On the other hand, 52% of respondents said climate change was a top priority – the highest number recorded in the 14 years Pew has been asking this question. (The former high water mark was 46%, in 2018.)

Until this year, climate change had never made it out of the basement relative to other issues. Americans say they’re concerned about the climate, but more of them are concerned about practically everything else.

For six years running, between 2008 and 2013, climate ranked dead last out of 16+ issues (select a year and then ‘Overall’ here). Once, in 2016, climate beat out both gun policy (by 1% point) and global trade (by 7 points).

At 52% this year, it ranks 11th – higher than seven other issues:

  1. drug addiction (2% points less)
  2. infrastructure (3 points less)
  3. jobs (3 points less)
  4. the military (6 points less)
  5. gun policy (6 points less)
  6. race relations (8 points less)
  7. global trade (10 points less)

But before celebrating, climate activists would do well to keep matters in perspective. A great deal has changed since these questions were posed in January of this year. If the poll were to be repeated today, race relations would no doubt score higher than second from the bottom. Jobs, too, would jump up the list.

The 10-ton elephant in the room is, of course, the economy. Government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have decimated economic activity. It remains unclear how many restaurants will survive, and how long it will take other businesses – especially those dependent on tourism – to bounce back. The next several months are likely to be grim, as ever more people slide into bankruptcy.

When Pew conducts its poll in January 2021, the results will be fascinating. Will the pattern of the past 14 years hold (economic anxiety up, climate concern down)? Or will we be in utterly new territory?


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  • The Stanford University poll was conducted over 80 days – between 28 May and 16 August. That is an unusually long time, especially during a year of turbulence. By comparison, Pew’s 2020 survey was conducted over six days, ending January 13th.
  • Industry best practice is to conduct ongoing surveys at the same time each year. Pew does this, but the Stanford University poll does not. On this web page, if you choose ‘Attitude Strength’ as the category, and ‘Personal Importance’ as the question, you can hover your mouse over each data point and discover that the Stanford poll has asked this question in every single month of the calendar year – even in December, which is a big no-no due to potential bias linked to the holiday season. Here’s when the polls were conducted: October 1997, February 1998, March 2006, April 2007, July 2008, November 2009, June 2010, September 2011, June 2012, December 2013, January 2015, May 2018, and August 2020. We know this info isn’t entirely reliable, however, because the 2020 data wasn’t collected only in August, but as early as May.
  • Neither the press release nor the news articles tell us whether this was a telephone survey, or an online survey. Generally speaking, online surveys are considered less reliable.
  • Remember the good old days, when journalists routinely reported a poll’s margin of error? See this 1995 Associated Press story and this 2007 Associated Press story. Neither Scientific American nor the New York Times say a word about margin of error. The 33-page report doesn’t mention it, either.
  • see my previous commentary, Strong Economy Lifts Climate Boat
  • Poll Results: Climate Is Always Low Priority
  • Decades of Public Opinion: Climate Change Not on the Radar
  • Fantasy Wish List Masquerades as Climate Poll
  • from 2014, The Climate Change Express: Ignoring Your Views at Every Meal
  • from 2010, The Activists, the Poll, and the Data
  • another finding the researchers chose to emphasize in their report:

    page 22


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This entry was posted on September 2, 2020 by in ethical & philosophical, media and tagged , , , .
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