NY Times Global Warming Survey Misleads the Public

The New York Times recently offered up the latest in a series of surveys sponsored by media companies (and in this case executed by a believer at Stanford) purporting to show that pretty much everyone – even the dumb-dumb Republicans — wants the government to “do something” about global warming (“Most Republicans Say They Back Climate Action, Poll Finds” read here).

I thought it might be helpful to give some context and perspective to the issue.


I know everyone gets bored with methodology pretty quickly; so do I. The Times polled adults (not registered voters, not likely voters). They weighted the results, which means they conformed them to how they think the American public is divided with respect to ideology and demography.


This issue is at or near the top of the approximately no one’s priority list. We have been starting surveys for years by asking people: “What is the most important or pressing issue facing the United States? And what is the second most important or pressing issue facing the United States?” In ten years of asking that question, never has more than 3% of registered (or likely) voters identified environment as one of their top two issues, and a very small fragment – maybe 30 people per 10,000 respondents (or about 1/3 of one percent) – have specifically mentioned global warming. The economy, jobs, health care, the war in Iraq, debt and deficit, gas prices, etc., have all taken their turn at or near the top of the priority list (typically with 50-70 percent of the voters identifying them at one time of another as the first or second priority). But the environment has never gotten any higher than 5% combined.

Why is that important? Because most surveys simply ask respondents to select from a list (“Of the following, which do you think is an important issue facing the United States”) or, worse, ask some variation on “do you think climate change is an important issue”. These questions are not very likely to result in probative, accurate assessments of what respondents really care about, because they limit the choices the respondents can give to those selected by the survey writer. It is probably important to note that even when presented with a list, climate change routinely finishes last among the concerns of survey respondents.

The Times asked how serious a problem global warming is, without reference to other problems, so it is impossible to place the results in context.


We can go back and forth for a long time about what the survey data shows with respect to who believes what about global warming. But let’s make it easy. Last summer, Pew came out with survey results that indicated that about 18% of the voters simply did not believe the Earth is warming. Another 18% indicated that the Earth was warming, but did not attribute that warming to man. Another 17% indicated that we did not know enough yet to assign attribution. 40% believed the Earth is warming and man is the culprit (but it is not completely clear if that means man is entirely to blame, mostly to blame, or what). As always, about 7% did not know or refused to say what they thought.

I could pull any decent public survey from the last 15 years and the numbers would not vary by more than 5 percentage points in any direction. The simple reality is that this issue – at least since 2000 – has been marked by some short-term variations and then a return to the baseline. The baseline looks a lot like the Pew survey – about one in five hard-core believers on either side, with the remaining 60% split about evenly over time (sometimes 35-25 in one direction, sometimes 35-25 in the other).


Despite (or perhaps because of) differing sentiments about causation, there is much more coherence with respect to what voters are willing to pay to address global warming. I think we are the only ones who have consistently asked about willingness to pay as an open question (“How much are you willing to pay each year to address global warming/to reduce global average temperatures by XX/to reduce the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels?”). The responses have become fairly predictable. Means have been as high as $279 (mostly due to true believers answering “$10,000”); medians (the important measure in a democracy) have been as high as 50 to 60 dollars; and the percentage of respondents who say “zero” or “nothing” has remained pretty consistently in the low 40s.

In our most recent survey, when we asked how much respondents would be willing to pay to address global warming each year, 4 dollars was the median response (and, again, 42% answered “zero”).

The important point is that there is very limited tolerance to pay anything, even absent questions being raised about increasing the size and reach of government or giving economic advantages to our competitors.

The problem of “we

Most people involved in public policy know that when a politician says “we”, he really means “the government”. But in most instances, our respondents understand “we” to mean “the people of the United States”. This distinction can be crucial during policy discussions, especially when it comes to federal support for something. An elected official says: “We need to support X.” The politician, of course, usually means give X some taxpayer money. But voters often think he means, “buy their product” or “get out of their way”. It is a small, but incredibly important rhetorical point, especially as we talk about renewable energy.


Despite the best efforts of the Administration, voters do not yet conflate “doing something” on global warming with federal action. Those of us who work in policy circles routinely conflate the two; voters do not. In fact, we should clearly bifurcate “action” from “federal government action”.

Part of this rests on the idea that very few people trust the federal government to do anything well. For example, in a recent survey we asked: “Do you trust the federal government to address global warming?” Sixty percent (60%) said no; just 20% said yes.

This is important because voters expect and anticipate that if and when alternative energy becomes affordable, reliable, plentiful, and if and when global warming is addressed (whatever that means), it will happen through the application of (probably disruptive) technology and innovation, not by virtue of government regulations, mandates, and subsidies.

The Times takes full advantage of the confusion about conflation. An important question in the survey asks: “Would the United States doing things to reduce global warming in the future hurt the economy, help, or have no effect.” Imagine if the question was “would the federal government doing things help or hurt”; or “would legions of rules and bureaucrats help or hurt”. I could go on, but you get the point.

By the way, even after cooking the question, the Times could only get 42% of the respondents to say that the United States doing “things” to reduce global warming would help the economy; and that only after a series of questions focusing on how grave a problem such warming might be.

The key question

The Times offered three different takes on global warming. This one was the most popular: “I believe that global warming has been happening for the past 100 years, mainly because we have been burning fossil fuels and putting out greenhouse gasses. Now is the time for us to be using new forms of energy that are made in America and will be renewable forever. We can manufacture better cars that use less gasoline and build better appliances that use less electricity. We need to transform the outdated ways of generating energy into new ones that create jobs and entire industries, and stop the damage we’ve been doing to the environment.”

Wow. The other two options were essentially strawmen. This one, of course, is a perfect example of the problem of “we”. “Now is the time for us to be using new forms of energy.” Again, imagine if they had asked whether now is the time for new federal mandates to use new forms of energy. “We need to transform the outdated ways of generating electricity . . .” Imagine if they had asked whether the federal government should transform the electricity system. Actually, we did ask that in a survey a few months back and about two-thirds of the voters rejected the idea.

You get the point. The survey drove respondents to this answer. It doesn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know – people like technology, they like a clean environment, they like better cars and appliances, they like new jobs and industries. The survey is silent on the questions of the day – how much should the federal government be involved in energy? How much are people willing to pay to change the way we make and consume energy? What do people think are the best ways to make the changes they want?

I had hoped for better from the Times and Stanford.

Other questions

When they did get around to asking about the federal government, the Times could not resist an editorial preface. Here’s the question: “As you may have heard, greenhouse gases are thought to cause global warming. Should the federal government limit the amount of greenhouse gases that U.S. businesses put out?” In other words, there is a problem, would you like someone else to take care of it? Not a shocker, 78% of the respondents like free stuff.

But when it turned to what the respondents were willing to offer, the wallets got a little tighter. Just 25% favored increased taxes on electricity (I wonder how they would feel about a renewable mandate that acts as a tax); and 35% favored taxes on gasoline. I’m not sure where those taxes would go, although I suspect if we asked, “would you a favor an increase in the federal gasoline tax?” we would get fewer than 35% of respondents supporting the idea.

Final thoughts

Three final thoughts are worth noting.

First, the science is coming our way. One by one the narratives on the other side are being discredited or simply overtaken by events. Think about polar bears, or droughts and hurricanes, or sea level rise, or global average temperatures. Even the most recent IPCC report, read in its entirety, injects considerably more uncertainty into the discussion. As improbable as it seems, the Washington Post recently ran a blog delving into the “pause” in the increase of global average temperatures. Each of the IPCC models has been wrong in its entirety; climate sensitivity is much lower than anticipated.

Second, other nations are coming our way. Australia has gotten rid of its carbon tax. The Japanese have indicated they have bigger fish to fry than global warming. The Germans are about to give up on their green experiment and will use more coal this year than last, and will use more next year than this year. India recently said flat out that economic growth was more important than global warming.

Third, as discussed above, public opinion continues to wash around a few simple numbers – it has been fairly static for a long time.

You can make whatever decisions are appropriate for your company or your boss or what have you; I hesitate to tell people what to do. But the counsel should at least be based on good information. The information we have available to us – opinion research and science — suggests that we are winning this fight. It is probably premature to talk about exit strategies.

One last thought. Those who are advocating a rework of messages and policies with respect to global warming are, almost without exception, the same people who have been encouraging a series of preemptive surrenders since the Bush Administration. There were numerous people, especially among the utilities, who wanted to make a deal with Jim Connaughton and his crew in 2007 and 2008. They then migrated onto Waxman-Markey. Now they are wetting the bed over the proposed existing source rule.

This post was authored by Mike McKenna, President of MWR Strategies. McKenna has conducted public polling research for AEA.



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