In the arcane world of polling, there is a cohort of people known as the issue public — defined as a community that feels an issue is extremely important to them personally. “They are the people who make things happen on the issue,” Jon A. Krosnick, a professor of communication, political science and psychology at Stanford University, tells the New York Times. People in the group tend to make donations to lobbying groups, sending emails to lawmakers, attending rallies — and voting.
The issue public concerned with climate change has grown larger over time according to the latest survey conducted by Stanford’s Krosnick in cooperation with Resources for the Future (RFF) and ReconMR. In 2015, that group was 13 percent of the population. By 2020, it had nearly doubled in size to 25 percent. This may come as a surprise to some in the polling community. With all the news about raging forest fires in California (and many other parts of the world), reports of coastal cities experiencing flooding more frequently, record high temperatures in Death Valley coupled with the constant drumbeat of coronavirus news and people running around like lunatics warning of flesh eating pedophiles everywhere, you’d think people would have lots more things to worry about than climate change.
The Finite Pool Of Worry
Psychologist refer to a phenomenon they call the “finite pool of worry,” which posits that people can only worry about so many things at once. As one source of worry increases, other concerns recede into the background, or so the theory goes. Krosnick has a response that goes like this: ““People can walk and chew gum at the same time.” Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication says the new polling shows climate change is “not fading from people’s memories, it is not fading from their sense of importance just because other issues have arisen.”
The changes in attitudes uncovered by the survey are having an effect on politics, the New York Times reports. 11 years ago, the Democratic party had little interest in accepting donations for people and groups concerned about climate change. This year, Joe Biden has been the beneficiary of a flood of campaign donations from them.
Krosnick says the “issue public” behind climate change being at 25 percent is the second largest group has has seen in his polling experience. Only abortion, at 31 percent, is the focus of a larger group of people. By comparison, the group of American adults who are passionate about gun control generally hovers around 17 percent, and capital punishment weighs in at about 14 percent.
“I would never have predicted this 25 percent,” Dr. Krosnick points out. He suggests the efforts by the alleged president to undermine climate science, promote more drilling for oil and gas, and hobbling government initiatives to address global warming could be behind the surge. “The Democrats just gained a significant number of people who are powerfully now inclined toward them on the issue.” If the election is close, the existence of a passionate community concerned about the challenges of a warming planet could make a difference he says.
Myrna Perez of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School tells the New York Times, “Environmental groups are acutely aware of the fact that their agendas are not going to be accomplished if the vote is not free, fair and accessible. Reform generally is not going to happen unless our democracy is representative and robust and participatory — and the environmental groups are getting it.”
The Pandemic And Pollution
In the survey report, Ray Kopp, vice president for research and policy engagement at RFF, says “The COVID-19 pandemic has been a unique test for how people feel about climate change when faced with a different global crisis. The argument that we can’t do anything about climate change without crashing the economy, or that we need to just focus on the pandemic and not do anything in climate right now simply doesn’t resonate with Americans.”
Alan Krupnick, a senior fellow at RFF, adds “The COVID-19 pandemic, the cratering economy, racial injustice, and so many other pressing societal issues have captured national attention and could be expected to shift focus away from thinking and learning about climate change. Nevertheless, the fraction of the American public who believes global warming is probably happening, a broad way of gauging belief in climate change, is both high and stable over time at around 80% over two decades and 81% this year. That this percentage is so high is indicative of bipartisan support, as the fraction of Americans who are Republicans is higher than 20%. This is good news for public support for future actions on climate change mitigation and adaptation.”
The percentage of Americans who believe Earth has been warming over the last 100 years, and the proportion of Americans who attribute this warming to human activity, has remained fairly steady over the last 23 years,” says Daniel Raimi, senior research assistant at RFF. “In one sense, this consistency could be seen as a failure to inform an ever-growing share of the American public that human activities are the leading cause of global warming.
“But on the other side of the coin, the consistently high percentage of Americans who understand the science can be seen as a success in the face of increasing political polarization and climate skepticism from prominent voices, including President Trump. In this light, public opinion could be seen as “weathering the storms” of increased politicization and growing climate denial.”
Given the level of venom directed at climate scientists by fossil fuel companies, you might expect the percentage of Americans who believe what the scientists are telling us about climate change to decline, but the RFF survey suggests otherwise. In 2020, 74% of respondents said they trust what scientists say about the environment at least a moderate amount — about the same as the 73% observed in 2006. In fact, no notable or sustained change in trust in environmental scientists occurred over the interim period, despite visible efforts to discredit scientists.
Let George Do It
One thing the survey makes clear is the majority of Americans believe climate change is happening but want someone else to deal with the problem. Among psychologists, this is known as the “Let George Do It” concept. Maybe it’s because we all have kids to raise and bosses to satisfy and bills to pay. But business corporations see the economic value of cloaking themselves in green credentials and are leveraging their climate friendly policies to increase sales.
“In a business climate awash with new information and ideas, companies are always looking for ways to stand out in the field. As new digital platforms have created unique environments for fostering conversation between firms and their audiences, American businesses have placed a growing emphasis on corporate social responsibility,” says Justine Sullivan, director of communications for RFF. “Potential consumers want to know — what does this company stand for? Does it hold itself accountable for its actions? From brands donating to support local and national causes, to businesses advocating for climate justice, Americans increasingly expect the companies they patronize to not only supply goods, but to work toward the common good.”
In an odd way, efforts by corporations to burnish their climate friendly image may play more of a role in making the federal and state governments respond effectively to climate change than voters do. Certainly the shredding of environmental policies by the current administration has been driven in large measure by corporate policies promulgated in the board rooms of pipeline companies, fracking companies, coal companies, and oil companies.
Corporations As Super Citizens
Perhaps Chief Justice John Roberts is right — corporations are people. In the final analysis, they may actually more important than humans when it comes to deciding how America responds to the challenges of a warming planet. What corporate leaders believe may be more important than what voters believe. With their access to lobbying networks that are unavailable to mere mortals, their voices get heard when those of ordinary people are muffled. The theory upon which America was founded held the sovereignty of a nation resides in its citizens rather than a monarch. That theory is known as liberalism but don’t tell conservatives. It might make their heads explode!
Over the course of 250 years, a new political reality has been created that makes corporations the locus of power in America. They have become super citizens who have acquired the true sovereignty of the nation. While the RFF survey plumbs the beliefs of American people, it may ultimately be beside the point. In modern day America, the people have little actual power. In fact, all the voters really decide is which group of lobbyists will be predominant in the next administration. As citizens, we are pretty much just along for the ride while corporations lead the parade.
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