Lisa Lerer’s Bloomberg story today lifts the curtain on an interesting poll they conducted on Americans’ feelings about climate change and national policy.
While on the surface the poll suggests a strong foundation of support for the president’s new climate push, manifested most recently in new Environmental Protection Agency regulations, this snapshot also reveals some areas of concern for those who want to see stronger policy action in the future.
The encouraging headline figure is that 62 percent of those polled are willing to take some personal pain in exchange for climate benefits: paying more for their energy, if carbon emissions could be reduced. An additional positive trend is the portion of respondents (51 percent) who said a candidate supporting “government action” on climate change would be likely to get their vote (an additional 19 said said it would not matter one way or the other).
These statistics may be encouraging for politicians who are worried getting too far out in public opinion might doom them at the ballot box. A healthy number of respondents (50 percent) believe the country needs to move on climate change within the next ten years, as opposed to only a quarter who say we can wait longer than that.
The poll, however, still shows we have a long way to go. While the support for climate action may be broad, it is not clear, from this poll at least, how deep it goes. When asked to rank the most important issues facing the country right now, climate change does not score very high:
Unemployment and Jobs 28 percent
Health Care 17 percent
A decline in real income for American workers 16 percent
The federal deficit 13 percent
Immigration 6 percent
Climate Change 5 percent
Terrorism 4 percent
Taxes 4 percent
Other 3 percent
Not Sure 3 percent
None of these 1 percent
Source: Bloomberg News National Poll/Selzer & Company
This dovetails with previous data, such as a pre-inaugural 2013 poll wherein only 18 percent ranked climate change as the highest priority facing the nation.
Just as disconcerting, Lerer notes in her story, is that a favored talking point of climate denialism is something far too many people identify with. The poll revealed 43 percent say “scientists manipulate their findings for political reasons,” despite the intense peer review process scientific findings undergo prior to publication.
As bizarrely, the poll also suggests skepticism to one of the Obama administration’s biggest selling points about the new regulations—the public health benefits. While carbon dioxide itself—which the regulations seek to reduce over time—is not toxic to humans, it is merely one pollutant among many emitted from fossil fuel power plants.
As Bryan Walsh demonstrates in Time, nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, and soot are three pollutants likely to be reduced as these new regulations unfold, preventing, by the EPA’s estimate, 6,600 premature deaths and 150,000 asthma attacks; it is no surprise the American Lung Association has long advocated on this issue.
And yet, more than half of those surveyed, presumably including those willing to trade higher energy bills for carbon reductions, think the new regulations will have “no real impact” on the number of asthma cases or other respiratory diseases.
Does this mean the administration has failed in making its case? It is likely too soon to tell. The roll-out of the new regulations is not even a month old.
Public opinion is notoriously hard to unpack; and it is not unprecedented for quite striking changes to happen over a relatively brief timeline (see statistics on support for gay marriage and interracial marriage for example).
Many of the co-benefits of action on climate change (like reductions in particulate air pollution) are hypothetical, and it will be a couple of more years before the state emissions reduction plans are finalized. During that time, people will find out in more concrete terms what some of the costs will be.
For now, the policy is at least trending in the right direction; whether the impression of the American people follows remains an open question.