Friday, June 17, 2016

When asked the right questions, Americans are most concerned about the environment

An interesting item in the HuffPost blog today highlights the dramatic effects of the phrasing of questions in polls.
As the article points out, a question like "Do you believe in climate change?" tends to elicit a largely unconsidered, knee-jerk response in many Americans, as though the very phrasing of the question makes it clear at the outset that the answer should be "no" (as in "Do you believe in the tooth fairy?"). Similarly, the long-standing Gallop Poll question, "What is the most important problem facing this country today?" tends to result in responses more concerned with personal, everyday, often economic, issues like jobs, healthcare, education, security, infrastructure, terrorism, kids, housing, transportation, etc, and environmental issues typically tend to take a distant back-seat on such polls - a fact not lost on many politicians whose agenda this suits.
Stanford's Political Psychology Research Group, though, have for years now posed a subtly different question, yielding a not-so-subtle difference in responses. Their question is phrased, "What will be the most important problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?", and, even in relatively conservative and blasé America, global warming/environment jump to the top of the list with a 25% response (a distant second place is shared by the economy/unemployment and terrorism, both with 10% - no other single issue even breaks the 5% threshold). More specifically: 74% of Americans believe that global warming will be a very or somewhat serious problem for the USA; 83% that it will be a very or somewhat serious problem for the world as a whole; 78% say that the US government should limit emissions by American companies; and only 9% are extremely or very sure that global warning has not actually been happening.
Very few issues have ever united Americans quite as unanimously as this poll would suggest and, on this basis, the world's largest climate change offender should be making concerted efforts to address the problem (to be fair, President Obama is trying, but he appears to be swimming against a strong adverse political tide), and the issue should be top of mind for parties of all political stripes.
So, maybe the problem has been that, for all these years, we have simply been asking the wrong questions.

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