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Resources Issue 169, Summer 2008

 Jon Krosnick has extensively studied the psychology of American political behavior, with special attention to how policy debates affect voter preferences on a variety of issues. An RFF University Fellow, Krosnick has partnered with several RFF researchers to sample public opinion on energy and environmental policy questions, most recently in collaboration with ABC News and Planet Green and with the support of the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.

Among the questions his research has explored: How do the news media define which national problems citizens think are most important for the nation? How do the media shape how citizens evaluate the president’s job performance? How does becoming very knowledgeable about—and emotionally invested in—a policy issue affect political thinking and participation? How do people’s political views change as they move through the life cycle from early adulthood to old age?

 Krosnick Cover
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Krosnick is the Frederic O. Glover Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences at Stanford, where he holds joint appointments as professor of political science, communications, and psychology. Resources asked him to reflect on how attitudes on environmental issues have evolved in recent years.

Resources: In comparing 2008 to previous election years, what is the biggest shift in public attitudes toward environmental issues?

Jon Krosnick: Without a doubt, the environment has been a greater priority among the American electorate in the last 12 months than in a generation—probably going back to the 1970s—and certainly greater than in any recent election cycle. That’s because of two things.

During 2007, the news media grabbed on to climate change and drowned the public in coverage. Those stories eventually receded from the front pages, but they set the stage for what happened next. Energy—particularly as motorists experienced price-induced pain at the gas pump—became more visible in the public eye than ever. Now we are finding that energy and its relationship to climate and other environmental issues rank among the top issues affecting voter judgments.

That is a big change. The environment has always been a poor cousin to issues like crime and education. Now it’s front and center.

 Krosnick Graphic Text Resources: Will the economic impact of energy prices sway voter choices?

Krosnick: Normally, we don’t see people’s pocketbooks having much impact on their political thinking. For example, if you suffer economically, does that lead you to vote against the party in the White House? The answer is generally no, because when most individuals suffer economically, they don’t blame it on the president. They blame it on their company’s poor management of its finances, or they blame it on their boss, who didn’t appreciate their talents and fired them.

Conversely, if people succeed economically—get a raise, a promotion, or whatever—they say, “Well, it’s because I’m such a great person.” They don’t say thank you to the White House for their success. For the most part, when we see people voting based on economic considerations, it’s actually a heartwarming phenomenon that we call sociotropic voting. Sociotropic thinking in the political arena means thinking based on what’s good for the country, or the collective, rather than what’s good just for me personally.

Voters aren’t selfish; they consider the country as a whole. When people see the country doing well economically, they’re favorable toward the party in the White House and tend to vote for it. When they see the country suffering economically, they’re unfavorable toward that party and tend to vote against it.

When it comes to energy prices, voters are likely to think the same way—they are likely to blame the White House at least partly for gas prices across the country but not for their own personal pain at the pump. So a person’s vote is likely to be influenced by perceptions of the nation’s gas prices and efforts to reduce them. People will debate many questions—“Why exactly are gas prices as high as they are? Is it the speculators? Is it the supply? Is it the war in Iraq?” And the more they see the White House as having responsibility for current national conditions, the more people will vote accordingly. There is now a real sense of a connection between gasoline prices and the political system.

Resources: Are many voters concerned enough about energy and the environment to base their votes on those issues?

Krosnick: Absolutely. About 16 percent say that climate change is extremely important to them personally, and these people will use the issue when deciding how they will vote. That is about one in six people—a very large voter cohort compared to groups who are passionate about education, for example, or gun control, or abortion, or capital punishment. People who have strong environmental sympathies cut across all demographic boundaries, such as age, income, educational attainment, and gender. And when you are talking about one-sixth of the electorate, that’s a number that can sway outcomes.

Resources: Does increasing interest in climate translate into increased awareness of environmental issues more generally?

Krosnick: Yes and no. In certain segments of the electorate, there is an activist movement that we haven’t seen in a long time focused on grassroots environmental protection.

There has always been a chunk of people who call themselves environmentalists, but they’re not really doing much about it. Maybe they’ll send a check every so often to the Sierra Club, but that’s it. Now, all of a sudden, an army of activists has emerged that is actually doing things. When we do surveys that ask, “are you reducing your carbon footprint?” or “are you now looking for products made in green ways over products that are not made in green ways?” we find that people are now doing much more than they ever have. They genuinely are changing their lifestyles—changing light bulbs to compact fluorescents and buying hybrid cars—and taking pride in saying, “I walk to work now four days a week. I ride the bus or a bike.” And this phenomenon is up sharply in the last year.

Resources: What about other environmental concerns, like nuclear waste, endangered species, threatened ecosystems, and water scarcity?

 Krosnick Text 2

They are much lower on Americans’ list of priorities than climate change right now. Some people are quite concerned about each of those issues, but they represent much smaller fractions of the public. The environment is not so universally important to Americans across the board that anybody who’s patriotic will say, “If you care about America, you care about the environment.” There are no issues like that except for the economy and national security.

Resources: With regard to the 2008 presidential election, how will concerns about climate and energy factor into voter decisions?

Krosnick: What’s really unusual about 2008 is how much the two candidates agree about the basic science of climate change, that the issue is a top priority, that it deserves considerable government action to address it, and that cap-and-trade mechanisms are feasible strategies. Barack Obama has offered a longer list of specific proposals for government intervention and action, including emissions reduction mandates. But if you stand back and squint at these two men, you certainly would not say, “This guy is saying go after climate change and this guy is saying no.”

By agreeing on these basics, the candidates have transformed the debate into one focusing on the details. How exactly will energy supplies be expanded? How exactly will emissions be reduced? How exactly will the economic burden of energy prices be made more bearable for consumers? When the discussion focuses on details like these, Americans who care deeply about these issues will listen carefully to what the candidates say and evaluate them on that basis.

The campaign will hinge on what the candidates say about energy and the environment during the debates, on the ads they create, and on what their websites say. During the primaries, Obama had lots of climate change material on his website, and McCain had almost nothing. But as soon as he clinched the nomination, McCain expanded his website’s climate change coverage considerably. More recently, energy and the environment have been the foci of lots of ads and speeches by both candidates. Votes will be won and lost as a result.

Partisan Global Warming Graph

Global Warming Graphic Text

Resources: Is there some differentiation in how people feel about the environment and energy based on their party affiliation?

Krosnick: Yes, absolutely. Ten years ago when we started our collaborative surveys with RFF on climate change, we were really struck to see Democrats and Republicans basically agreeing that climate change is real, that it is caused by humans, that it can have bad consequences, and that something needs to be done about it.

Since then, we’ve seen gradual growth in the gap between Democrats and Republicans. Among the Democrats, larger numbers agree that climate change is a problem, whereas the Republicans have held steady over that time period. There is now much more of a partisan divide than there ever was. That’s partly a function of the fact that our surveys began before the Clinton administration started its campaign for climate action and before we watched the Kyoto Protocol become attached to the Democratic party. After that, we watched a Republican administration take a skeptical stance about the issue. And so the cues that American citizens have been getting from the leaders they trust have been increasingly polarized along party lines.

How do Americans feel about a cap-and-trade policy to curb releases of carbon into the atmosphere?

Krosnick: Among all of the policy options for carbon reduction that we’ve investigated, cap and trade is the least appealing to the American public. If a cap-and-trade bill were passed right now by the Democratically controlled Congress, there’s a real possibility that it would get a negative reception. Many people don’t believe it will work.

Interestingly, when people are told that cap and trade is not a new idea and that it has been tried and tested, they become more positive toward it. But as of now, the vast majority of people are skeptical. They are much more supportive of government mandates to compel industries to use alternative fuels and non-carbon-based energy sources to reduce emissions. Even fewer endorse a tax on carbon. A huge majority of Americans believe government should be doing more to encourage the market to respond to climate and energy concerns.

Resources: Have you found results that really surprised you in your polling?

Krosnick: Although huge majorities of the American public have believed that climate change has been happening, will be bad for societies, and should be addressed, every one of our surveys has shown a majority of people to misperceive scientists’ views on these issues. Despite many Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and even a Nobel Prize, most Americans believe that scientists do not agree about whether climate change exists, about its causes, or about its seriousness. This surprised us a lot.

And when we set out to understand why this was happening, we found an important cause to be the news media’s decisions about how to cover climate change. Seeking to be balanced in their coverage, the media have paid attention regularly not only to mainstream scientists but to a smaller group of skeptics as well, often in equal measure. Many climate stories have presented the findings of natural scientists, followed by comments from skeptics.

So we did a simple experiment, which found that adding just 45 seconds from a skeptic to one tv news story substantially increases people’s perceptions of disagreement among scientists. It decreases their belief that climate change will be bad, as well as their belief that climate change is caused by humans.

Resources: You cited sociotropic thinking as a factor in how people feel about climate. Does it apply to other environmental resources?

Krosnick: Certainly. Research I’ve done with RFF scholars has shown that many Americans are willing to pay some of their own money to protect and preserve natural resources that they will never directly benefit from. If that sounds surprising, consider this.

 Cap and Trade Graphic

Imagine I told you that a collection of meteors is heading toward Earth, and when they hit, they will wipe out the Grand Canyon, the redwoods in California, Mount Rushmore, and every other site of natural beauty in the country.

The thought of losing all that makes many Americans sad, even people who know they will never visit any of those places. Knowing that natural beauty exists and that other people can enjoy it is worth something. So if offered the opportunity to pay $400 so that rockets could be sent to destroy the meteors in flight, many people would do it. And that’s often the result of sociotropic thinking.

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