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Stanford's Jon Krosnick: On climate change, most Americans want action

Krosnick's data: Washington doesn't get that most Americans think climate change is real & they have all along

Another presidential election, another chance for Republican candidates to step out of the denial zone and deal with climate change. That would put them on the same side as a large majority of Americans, if you ask Jon A. Krosnick. He's a Stanford University professor who directs the Political Psychology Research Group there, and his two decades of asking Americans about climate change has turned up consistent support for action to rein in global warming. Yet somehow, whatever the temperature of the planet, the debate on this topic manages to stay hot.

How did you get started on climate change?

In 1995, I got [an invitation] to a meeting of psychologists to talk about global warming. When I heard the framing of the question — why some people cared about climate change and other people didn't — I understood why I was there. I'd been trying to understand why some Americans care about particular political issues and some don't. I had studied abortion and gun control and other policy issues.

How does it compare?

In some ways, climate change is typical and in some ways it's not. Pick any issue — gun control, defense spending, even terrorism — and a small group of Americans are very passionate about it: 5% to 15%, sometimes 18% or 20%. But no issue gets anywhere near a majority of Americans. During the Vietnam War, only about 20% of Americans were really passionate about that. Following the [Sandy Hook] shootings, only about 13% of Americans were passionate about [gun control]. Think of the American public as a patchwork quilt of issues where each person is passionate about only a handful at most.

How do you define passionate?

Where a person wakes up and says, "Another day, another opportunity to do something about [for example] gun control in America." It takes a lot of emotion and cognitive energy to be in this category. Political scientists call this the "issue public." Of those passionate people, about half are on each side: Half the passionate people want strict gun laws, half want no gun laws.

In what way is climate change different?

It's weird in this regard: About 90% of the passionate are on what you might call the green side. They believe it's happening, it's caused by humans, it's a serious problem, and government should do something about it. That's unusual in that it allows candidates to win votes by talking about it. Democrats and Republicans will gain votes among independent voters if they take a green position. On most issues, anything a candidate says will annoy about as many people as it pleases, so there's no net profit.

Many Americans, including people in Washington, do not realize how one-sided the public is on this. If they did, they would change their approach. I've been to Capitol Hill to talk to legislators and they've said: "You're doing national surveys. I don't think the people in my state feel that way." So we've started looking at states and haven't found a single state where a majority of residents are skeptical, but legislators think they are. West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas — even in those states, large majorities are expressing green points of view.

What influences people's thinking?

In one experiment, we had [control group] participants simply report their opinions on global warming. Others reported after watching a video interview with [Stanford climate scientist Stephen Schneider]. A third group reported its opinions after watching that video and a video of another Stanford professor, from the Hoover Institution, making a counter-argument that more greenhouse gases are good for the planet.

Compared to the control group, we found that watching Schneider did increase the number of people who said the planet was warming, and so on. When the skeptic [video] followed Schneider, pretty much all the impact of Schneider was eliminated. One natural science voice was enough to push people in [one] direction, and one counter voice was capable of eliminating it — 5% [to] 9% increases and decreases.

We've [also] found the more people have been exposed to Fox News stories in general, the more likely they are to be skeptical about climate change. We don't know whether that's Fox persuading them or that people watch Fox to hear news they find congenial. That's a much tougher question.

A new experiment is the idea of scientists crossing the line [into advocacy]. A scientist is introduced as an expert on natural science and [states the global warming research]. If that scientist is asked, "So what do you think the government should do?" and answers that question even with something general — government should work on it, people should change their behavior — our hypothesis is that perhaps it actually reduces confidence and trust in the scientists.

Have public attitudes changed over time?

We've seen lots of events that one might imagine would change opinions — Al Gore's movie or Hurricane Katrina or the ridiculously cold, snowy winter in the Northeast. In surveys over about 25 years, it's remarkable how there's been almost no change in spite of those events.

What we've found is about 80% of Americans — I never see 80% of Americans agreeing on anything when it comes to other issues, so this is very unusual — believe the federal government should limit greenhouse gas emissions by businesses and in particular by public utilities.

Some [other] policies enjoy clear majority support: a carbon tax on business, cap-and-trade systems, tax incentives or mandates to improve energy efficiency of buildings, [cars] or appliances — policies that are characterized as reducing emissions, with a guarantee of reductions. Even if it costs Americans money, we see about two-thirds to three-quarters of the country expressing support for these policies.

[But] only about 25% to 30% favor the government increasing the price of gas or electricity simply to cause people to use less of it. What that policy does is simply guarantee an increase in the cost of gas; it doesn't guarantee people will use less of it.

So much agreement, yet so much discussion of climate change.

All the millions of dollars spent by activists trying to "green up" the country, to get people to change their opinions, to pressure government — as far as we can tell it's had essentially no impact. Those people are wasting their money trying to convert people to hold opinions they already hold.

The book and movie "Merchants of Doubt" make the argument that the fossil fuel industry has been doing what the tobacco industry did, to try to create doubts in the minds of Americans and to prevent legislation to restrict greenhouse gas emissions. [And yet] efforts described in the book and movie to discredit climate scientists — as far as we can tell that's had no impact on the public. The percentage of Americans who trust scientists talking about the environment, at least a moderate amount, has not changed notably in the last decade.

In 2010, Gallup's Frank Newport disagreed with your conclusions, saying many polling groups showed "demonstrable drops" in Americans' "acknowledgment and concern" about global warming.

I don't know of any studies that have shown anywhere near a majority of Americans expressing incredulity [about global warming], but there certainly is variation in the percentage of Americans expressing particular opinions. [Variations often] have to do with question wording.

For example, our wording goes, "What's your personal opinion: Do you think the Earth's temperature has probably been going up over the last 100 years, or do you think that's probably not happening?" [The Pew Research Center's] wording is: "From what you have read and heard, do you think there is solid evidence that the Earth's temperature has been warming over the last few decades or not?"

When question wording [is different] in significant ways, it's not unusual to see substantial differences in the answers you get.

I wish polls played a more prominent role in governance. There are plenty of people who say we wouldn't want that because Americans are idiotic and uninformed. Research that appears to show that is actually a result of a mistake by the investigator, not so much silliness by the public.

Over my career, I've been struck repeatedly at how often public opinion does seem to be thoughtful and informed and not mindless.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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