The Public’s Options

17 Mar, 2010

By Doug Pinkham
Public Affairs Council President

March 17, 2010

If you ever want proof that the American public is willing to change its mind – even on major policy issues – check out the latest Gallup poll on attitudes toward the environment.

Remember the growing consensus that climate change has become a crisis?  Three years ago, 61% of Americans said human activity causes global warming. But, in a survey released last week, only 50% support that notion. What’s more, 48% now say the seriousness of global warming has been generally exaggerated, up from 33% in 2007.

What’s going on here?

Last December, during the Copenhagen Climate Conference, the New Republic’s Ed Kilgore suggested three reasons: (1) the poor state of the economy; (2) the increased “radicalization” of the Republican Party, where much of the growing skepticism has occurred; and (3) efforts by the “hard-core anti-environmental right” to distort data and raise doubts about scientific consensus.

Despite the efforts of climate-change deniers, I’m voting for reason #1. That’s because Americans have a history of allowing economic conditions to affect their opinions.  In 2009, when the public told Gallup that economic growth was more important than environmental protection, the pollster had this to say:

The reason for this shift in priorities almost certainly has to do with the current economic recession. The findings reflect many recent Gallup results showing how primary the economy is in Americans’ minds, and help document the fact of life that in times of economic stress, the public can be persuaded to put off or ignore environmental concerns if need be in order to rejuvenate the economy.

Gallup’s data showed this shift occurred during economic downturns, such as in 2003, and reversed as the economy brightened, as in 2004-2007. Last March was the first time in 25 years that a majority of Americans ranked the economy as more important than the environment.

I suspect the impact of economic conditions is vastly understated in opinion polling. We put a lot of faith in political campaigns, advertising and media influence, but sometimes the state of the economy – and a person’s individual financial circumstances – can trump all other factors.

Newsweek’s Jeneen Interlandi said it best last December in a post about the global warming conundrum: “It’s a lot harder to care about the fate of the planet when you’re scared witless about losing your job.” I think it’s fair to say that it’s harder to care about most anything when you’re faced with severe economic insecurity. That applies to foreign affairs, universal health coverage, energy policy, immigration or countless other issues.

Earlier this year, we ran a chart from the Pew Research Center showing the public’s priorities for 2010. Eighty-three percent rated the economy as the top priority, 81% listed jobs and 80% listed terrorism. No other issue came close to those top three.

If I’m right, and economic concerns are disproportionately affecting everyone’s opinions, what are the implications?

  1. Economic factors likely affect the intensity of public opinion as well. For example, a recent poll by Yale and George Mason University found that 58% of Americans support a cap-and-trade policy to reduce carbon emissions – but that support drops to 40% if household energy costs increase by $15 a month. In the same way, a majority of Americans still support universal health coverage – unless taxes need to be raised to pay for that coverage.
  2. The economy may distract people from making an issue a personal priority, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want government to sit on its hands. The Yale and George Mason University poll, noting the big drop in concern about global warming, still reported that 71% thought carbon dioxide should be regulated as a pollutant.
  3. Appealing to the public’s sense of compassion for the poor or to the fate of future generations is best done when the economy is healthy. Yeah, I know, that’s why they call global warming an “inconvenient truth.” There’s never a good time to ask people to sacrifice. But, when public policy needs to be changed dramatically, you’re better off waiting for an economic recovery to push for new legislation.
  4. Public policy measures should be framed so they are compatible with the electorate’s mood. They should sound achievable and beneficial to an increasingly nervous public.  For example, global warming legislation that focuses on improving air quality and preserving America’s energy security will find a more receptive audience than measures that focus on saving the climate for our grandchildren.

What happens when the economy improves? On the climate-change issue, I would expect the public to shift back to the same environment-over-growth position it has held most of the past two decades. That means Americans may be more amenable to the trade-off of higher costs for cleaner air. Since surveys show most people still consider themselves “environmentalists,” it’s likely that climate change will move up the scale of public priorities.

I also wouldn’t be surprised to see changing attitudes about other domestic and foreign policy issues. As Americans slowly get their heads above water, their focus on non-economic issues will increase, just as it did when we came out of previous recessions.

But, to the frustration of Democrats seeking reelection, that shift isn’t likely to occur very soon.  Though the recession technically ended last year, 88% of Americans are still convinced we are in the middle of it. And that means they won’t have much patience for politicians who focus on anything other than jobs and economic growth.

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