Climate Is Taking On an Outsize Role for Voters, Research Suggests
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.
What’s more, despite the turmoil caused by overlapping national and global crises, support for action to curb climate change has not diminished. Backing for government to do more to deal with global warming, at 68 percent in May of 2018, was at the same level in 2020, according to the survey, issued Monday.
“People can walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Jon A. Krosnick, a professor of communication, political science and psychology at Stanford University and the leader of the project.
Many social scientists might have predicted a different result. A hypothesis in psychology called the “finite pool of worry” suggests that when people’s level of concern about one issue rises, concern about others tends to fall. Climate change, under such thinking, appeared to be a “luxury good” issue, the sort of thing that’s nice to have if you can afford it, but which gets pushed down the list of priorities in tough times.
The survey, the latest in a 23-year series, suggests that, instead, climate change has become important enough to Americans that it remains prominent despite the global coronavirus pandemic, with its rising death count in the United States, as well as the related national economic crisis, the pressures of self isolation brought on by the pandemic and a never-ending rush of other news.
The most striking part of the survey, Dr. Krosnick said, is the growth of a group he called the “issue public” around climate change.
An issue public is a community that feels an issue is extremely important to them personally. “They are the people who make things happen on the issue,” Dr. Krosnick said. That means, for example, making donations to lobbying groups, sending emails to lawmakers, attending rallies — and voting.
The issue public around climate change has grown tremendously over time, the survey suggests. In 2015, the group was 13 percent of the population. By 2020, it had nearly doubled to 25 percent.
Democratic candidates appear to be reaping the benefits of that shift. For instance, a wave of climate donors has flocked to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. That’s a departure from 11 years ago, when some party leaders discouraged fund-raising based on climate change.
Dr. Krosnick said the issue public behind climate change, at 25 percent, was now the second-largest he has seen, trailing only the group focused on abortion, at 31 percent. By comparison, the group of American adults who are passionate about gun control generally hovers around 17 percent, and capital punishment weighs in at about 14 percent.
“I would never have predicted this 25 percent,” Dr. Krosnick said. He suggested that President Trump’s efforts to undermine climate science and government initiatives to deal with global warming could be behind the surge. “The Democrats just gained a significant number of people who are powerfully now inclined toward them on the issue,” Dr. Krosnick said. In an election that could, in battleground states, turn into a game of inches, the rise of a passionate community could make a difference, he said.
Of course, interest in an issue doesn’t necessarily translate into votes. That’s why environmental groups have been at the forefront of efforts to raise voter turnout and ensure the integrity of the election, said Myrna Pérez, director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU law school.
“Environmental groups are acutely aware of the fact that their agendas are not going to be accomplished if the vote is not free, fair and accessible,” Ms. Pérez said. “Reform generally is not going to happen unless our democracy is representative and robust and participatory — and the environmental groups are getting it.”
Dr. Krosnick’s survey supported the findings of an earlier one published in May by researchers at Yale University and George Mason University. In that project, 73 percent of those polled said that climate change was happening, which matches the highest level of acceptance previously measured by the survey, from 2019.
The new survey not only corroborates the earlier findings, but extends the period of polling through August as the compounding crises, along with the national tumult over racial injustice and the often-violent police response to demonstrations, dominated the news. What’s more, the results were remarkably consistent across all 10 weeks that the survey was conducted. Data was drawn from calls to 999 American adults, a process that started in May.
The survey was a joint project of Stanford, Resources for the Future, a Washington research group, and ReconMR, a survey research company.
Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which released the survey published in May, said the new polling showed that climate change was “not fading from people’s memories, it is not fading from their sense of importance just because other issues have arisen.”
A significant number of people have considered climate change, Dr. Leiserowitz said, and “pretty much made up their minds where they stand.”