On February 5, Jon Krosnick, Professor of Political Science, Communication, and Psychology, and Director of the Political Psychology Research Group at Stanford University, presented his group’s nationwide survey on American public opinion on climate change. The survey was thirty minutes long—long for a survey, he told the audience—and over 1,000 participants were chosen randomly. Expressing a dire need for randomness in the survey, Dr. Krosnick explained that his research group conducted both random dials and random selections within homes, so as to avoid any bias that may arise from those who were home at the time. Before diving into the specifics of the survey, the social psychologist also expressed the need for smart survey design: Scientists carefully construct questions that are unbiased, but these questions must also be easily understood.
Though we tend to think of climate change as an extremely divided issue, the majority of Americans answered that, if nothing is done, climate change will be a serious threat for both the United States and the globe. Professor Krosnick added that opinion on climate change throughout past years has closely fluctuated with yearly average temperatures, likely due to the effect of reports (like this one) that state that we’re experiencing the hottest years ever recorded. He also attributed the drop in belief in 2015 to the fact that the survey was done before the release of the “hottest year on record” report for 2014. Summarizing the introduction to these findings, Professor Krosnick proposed that there are two groups of people: those who trust the natural scientists and their findings, and those who don’t—who change opinion easily, owing to the slight variation in opinion over the years.
With this in mind, Professor Krosnick spoke to the views that the general American public have on governmental action. A majority of the survey’s participants answered that Congress—Democrats and Republicans alike—should do more to combat climate change, and that global warming should be at least moderately important to President Obama. With that said, the social psychologist fought back against the notion of the “owned issue,” that is, a highly partisan topic for which support becomes synonymous with one party. Unfortunately, according to Dr. Krosnick, participants erroneously found that President Obama has acted less on climate change in the past two years. “It’s an objective fact that he’s done more in the past year,” he stated, referencing the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and the agreement made between Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping of China. This finding went to show that a lack of knowledge of the sheer facts can skew the opinion of the public, who may pay little attention to the more “minute” details of policy measures, and more to headlines and visible results.
But, if citizens are critical of governmental response by both parties, what are their views on what, specifically, should be done? Though supportive of limiting greenhouse gas emissions for businesses and tax breaks for businesses to run renewably or limit their emissions, participants were not particularly warm to taxing themselves for electricity and gas, or tax breaks for companies to build nuclear power plants.
Professor Krosnick concluded that this survey and his group’s survey on the impact of the media have not reflected the theory of “motivated reasoning,” the idea that an opinion needs much inertia to change, even if that opinion is illogical. Rather, the surveys have found that people are more data and exposure driven, and, even if they have their doubts about the science, are responsive to mainstream scientific belief. This conclusion was extremely timely for my studies, as I had recently read through several papers for a class that came to the same conclusion. However, I couldn’t help but think about the power of political elites in the conversation between media and citizen. Though media may have a strong influence of the opinion of the layman, his exposure to media is, at the source, colored by statements of political elites, whether they support or deny a changing climate. Thus, I thought, if we aim to sustain or grow public concern, these surveys by Professor Krosnick, his team, and other studies highlight the power of communication—between television screen and citizen, but also between politician and government, as those statements are heavily publicized.