Climate Insights 2020: Synthesis Report
The synthesis report of the Climate Insights 2020 survey, a joint effort to examine American attitudes on climate change by researchers at Stanford University, Resources for the Future, and ReconMR, provides insight into what Americans think about climate, electric vehicles, natural disasters, and more.
As we enter the year 2021, the United States continues to grapple with an unprecedented and devastating combination of crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic crash, and escalating climate change threats. There is much hope that the new administration under President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and the 117th Congress will steer the nation toward recovery, restoration, and reinvigoration in combating these crises. Of particular interest is how legislation can be enacted to confront global climate change. Especially challenging is the question of whether new climate policies can be implemented while public officials manage the dual crises threatening economic stability and public health.
One reason we might anticipate reduced concern about climate change now is the possibility that care for the natural environment is a “luxury good” to many people. As we will examine in the pages that follow, some might see Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” (1943; 1954) as suggesting that people in contemporary societies can afford to worry about protecting the planet’s natural environment only if their basic survival needs have been satisfied. A related presumption is that economic growth and environmental protection are incompatible with one another, as efforts to grow the economy must take resources away from helping the environment. Such a presumption suggests an “either the economy or the environment” dichotomy.
The novel coronavirus pandemic and the economic upheaval in the United States in 2020 offer a natural experiment to test both theories by exploring the impact of the dual crises on Americans’ climate change opinions. Does such a sudden and devastating decline in the satisfaction of needs—loss of jobs, diminished feelings of safety, reduced economic security—affect American concern about the natural environment, public support for efforts to protect the environment, and even belief in the existence of global warming? If Americans perceive the trade-off between the environment and the economy as inevitable, the pandemic and economic crisis would tilt them away from supporting environmental protection.
Our survey allowed us to explore these questions in the first chapter of this report. To do so, we compared these new responses to data collected before the pandemic, in 2018. Both surveys asked a wide array of identically worded questions on the topic of climate change, including questions about its existence, causes, and impacts, who should address it, and a host of mitigation policies. Both surveys were conducted with a nationally representative probability sample using random digit dialing to landlines and cellphones with live interviews.
Comparing these two surveys allows us to assess whether the intervening economic upheaval led Americans to reduce support for ameliorative efforts to combat global warming, both generally and through specific government actions. It also allows us to assess if the crises of 2020 has reduced willingness to fund the implementation of specific policies intended to mitigate global warming, perhaps due to less available money to make such payments. The 2018 and 2020 comparison also allows us to examine whether these economic and public health threats have reduced the number of people who believe in the existence and threat of global warming, reduced engagement on the issue of global warming, or reduced trust in scientists, all perhaps to rationalize reduced support for government action on the issue.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic and economic calamity, the year 2020 was filled with natural disasters brought about by climate change. At the end of the summer, the category 4 Hurricane Laura made landfall near the Texas-Louisiana border, two days after Tropical Storm Marco blew through the same area. Simultaneously, wildfires were raging across the American West, burning over one million acres and threatening tens of thousands of homes and other structures in California alone. From coast to coast, the threat of flood and fire has proven a real and persistent source of fear for millions of Americans.
The cost to Americans may justify local and national efforts to adapt to damage exacerbated by climate change. Whether governments should undertake such efforts—and how these efforts should be paid for—are matters on which the American public can and does express preferences. Policymakers may choose to take public sentiment into account if they have access to reliable measurements of the public’s preferences. We explored this series of questions in great depth and breadth.
With our data, we also explore whether people evaluate government policies based on what they believe is best for the nation as a whole (called “sociotropic” reasoning) or whether each individual evaluates policies based on his or her own personal financial interests. A great deal of economic theory has portrayed people as rational actors pursuing their own personal material self-interests (Kiewiet 1983; Kinder and Kiewiet 1981; Lewis-Beck and Paldam 2000). Rational choice theory suggests that people will support a public policy if they perceive that it will yield greater economic benefits to them than the costs incurred (Downs 1957). However, research has shown that a person’s material self-interests have little impact when forming opinions about government policies. Instead, people form their opinions based much more on “sociotropic” reasoning (Lau and Heldman 2009; Sears and Funk 1990; Sears et al. 1980). We explored the extent to which Americans’ climate policy support was driven by “sociotropic” considerations or by self-interests.
Looking ahead to the climate legislation that the Biden administration and the 117th Congress may enact, we examined Americans’ support for a wide range of policies to mitigate future emission, including consumer incentives that reward steps to reduce their carbon footprint; carbon pricing policies that require emitters to pay for their carbon emissions; regulations that require manufacturers to increase energy efficiency of their products, including automobiles, appliances, and buildings; and tax incentives that encourage manufacturers to increase the energy efficiency of their products.
Our data also allowed us to explore the extent to which opinions vary along political party lines. The importance of understanding the partisan divide on climate change can be gleaned from the perspective of policymakers who wish to be guided at least partly by the opinions of their constituents. If America is divided 50–50 along party lines on the issue of global warming, then the public offers no consensual guidance for decision-makers, leaving legislators to make decisions based on other considerations. But when majorities of the major parties agree with one another and with the majority of Independents, policymakers can pursue endorsed policies knowing that many of their constituents are on the same side. We assessed the degree to which majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans agree on various aspects of global warming in 2020, and we used data from prior surveys in our series to track changes in the partisan gap over the past two decades.
In the fifth chapter of this survey, we shifted away from examining the role of Americans as constituents to examine their role as potential consumers by observing how opinions on global warming may translate into openness to purchasing all-electric vehicles (EVs). According to some natural scientists and economists, one potential step to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change would be the widespread adoption of EVs, which can be powered by electricity generated by sunlight, wind, and water. Manufacturing and sales of EVs have been increasing in recent years. Still, thus far, such sales represent a small share of consumer automobile purchases in the United States.
There are various possible reasons for the slow adoption of this technology, and we explored a host of factors that may predict Americans’ resistance to entering EVs. The insights from this exploration shed light on the expansion of EVs in the United States.
In the last chapter of this report, we break down American attitudes on climate and policy options to a state level. These findings may be particularly important to state-level representatives like senators, as many surveys measure national public opinion, but few measure the opinions of residents of such limited geographic areas. We implemented a new technique for generating such data, using high quality national surveys of representative samples of American adults to yield accurate assessments of opinions in the US states. Hopefully these unique results will help state-level representatives consider whether their policies indeed reflect the will of the people they have been elected to represent.
We also explored whether the behavior of elected representatives on issues related to global warming is influenced by the preferences of their constituents. According to some political theorists, democracies only function effectively if elected representatives enact the policies that their constituencies support (Dahl 1989). This is thought to lead to popular support of government and confidence in the democratic process. Public opinion can shape policymaking if elected representatives can learn about the policy preferences of all of their constituents.
One way that representatives can learn about their constituents is via public opinion surveys like this one. Representatives do sometimes consult such data (Hulland, Baumgartner, and Smith 2018; Jacobs and Shapiro 2000), yet it is hard to blame elected officials if they do not follow the will of the public if no such data are available to them. Government officials deal with numerous issues at any one time, and public opinion surveys rarely document opinions on all of those issues.
At the time of this writing in February 2021, the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage across America and has caused untold damage to lives and the economy. In this report, we look into how this unique time in our nation’s history has influenced how we think about another problem with dangerous consequences. As you peruse this report, we urge you to think about climate change opinions in terms of where we’ve been, where we are now, and how we can proceed into the future.
To read the full report with full references, links, and acknowledgments, please click "Download," above. To view each chapter of the report as it was originally released, click the corresponding cards below.
For more information about this series, please visit the "About the Climate Insights Survey" page or contact Jon Krosnick.
Jon A. Krosnick
Jon A. Krosnick is an RFF university fellow and Stanford University-based social psychologist who does research on attitude formation, change, and effects, on the psychology of political behavior, and on survey research methods.
Adjunct Lecturer, Stanford University
TomKat Center Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Stanford University
Report — Aug 24, 2020
Climate Insights 2020: Overall Trends
A survey of American public opinion on climate change and the environment
Report — Oct 26, 2020
Climate Insights 2020: Opinion in the States
Climate Insights 2020: Opinion in the States
Data Tool — Aug 24, 2020
A new interactive tool provides comprehensive data on American public attitudes toward climate change between 1997 and 2020.