New poll: climate change is seen as the most left-wing issue – full results

While researching for The Climate Majority I ran a poll with PSB to look at:

  1. Which issues are seen as being concerns of left- or right-wing people
  2. Whether that perception matches the reality

This post sets out the results of the poll. I also have a comment piece today in Climate Home, which discusses its findings.

We conducted two separate polls, in the UK and the US. The questions were essentially the same, except for small differences in language. Full data is available here.

The poll was based around eight of the most high-profile public policy issues. For each issue we asked:

  1. Regardless of your own political views, what kind of person do you think is generally most worried about the following issues?
  2. How worried are you personally about each of the following issues?

In both countries, climate change is one of the issues that worries the most people. Healthcare is comfortably top (the polls were conducted in November-December 2016, so before the latest US healthcare debates but also before Trump increased attention to climate change) but climate is in the next group, along with immigration and crime. It’s a bit higher in the list if we look only at how many people are very worried, but not much lower if we also look at those who are somewhat worried. Either way it sits along issues that are usually considered of national importance.

Focusing now on the US:

Climate change is widely seen as an interest of liberals in the US. Along with inequality, it stands out as being perceived as the issue about which concern is most restricted to liberals. It is also seen as the one with the greatest partisan skew: 46% think liberals are the people most worried about climate change, compared with 41% thinking conservatives are the people most worried about immigration.

Now onto the reality of who actually is worried about each of these issues.

It’s true that climate change (along with inequality) worries liberals more than other people. That’s particularly the case if we look at who’s very worried about each issue – though less if we look at who’s also somewhat worried about each. In terms of the gap between liberals and other groups, climate change is the most skewed… but there’s a crucial caveat to that:

Despite the skew, more moderates are very worried about climate change than are very worried about most other issues. Even if we also look at somewhat worried, it’s still a top concern of moderates – not just of liberals.

So, a reason the skew looks so big is because conservatives are mostly unworried about it. Liberals are more worried about the issues that are heavily associated with conservatives (defense, immigration and national debt) than conservatives are about supposedly liberal issues like climate change. This is arguably more a story about conservatives being notably uninterested in climate change than liberals being unusually interested.

So in the US, climate change is seen as a liberal issue but it’s actually one that liberals and moderates are widely worried about. It’s only conservatives who are generally not worried.

And now looking at the UK:

The most striking result is that polarisation in the UK is much less than in the US. While climate change is often seen as a left-wing issue and immigration as a right-wing issue (and so on) most issues are mostly seen as having no political skew. That is, in most cases a plurality think that people’s political views make no difference to whether they are worried about the issue.

And finally, on what people in the UK actually think about the issues, we’ve got a similar picture to the US, but one that’s less dramatic. Climate change is quite polarised, although a bit less than inequality is and less than climate change is in the US…

… but one reason it’s less polarised in the UK is that left-wing British people are less worried about climate change than US liberals (this isn’t because the poll defined US liberals more narrowly than the UK left – in fact it took 28% in the US as liberals and 18% in the UK as left-wing). Conservatives / right-wing people are similarly relaxed about climate change in both countries. The polarisation seems to be less in the UK because the British left are, generally, somewhat less worried rather than because the US right are so opposed to dealing with it (although that ignores a separate point that the US right includes people who are much more vituperative in their opposition to dealing with climate change than most of the UK right are).

My book, The Climate Majority, looks at the consequences of climate change being seen as a left-wing concern – how that limits action to cut emissions, and how those of us worried about the problem can overcome the polarisation.

  1. Robin Guenier says:

    An interesting poll Leo. But your comment piece in Climate Home indicates that you may not understand the nature of the challenge. You conclude by saying this:

    “A slow victory isn’t enough if the world is to cut emissions quickly enough to prevent disastrous warming. If we are to speed up action, we should try changing the subject.”

    But cutting emissions quickly, doesn’t depend on changing the nature of the debate in the US and UK (responsible for only 15% of global emissions). It can be done only if the developing countries (responsible for over 65% of emissions) and Japan and Russia (another 9%) can be persuaded to prioritise emission reduction. Under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement, developing countries are entitled to give overriding priority to economic growth and poverty elimination and are exempt from any obligation (legal or moral) to reduce their emissions: LINK. Changing all that would be a huge and daunting undertaking and, yes, to achieve it the subject would have to be changed: but at the international, not the domestic level. Perhaps Trump’s proposal that the Paris Agreement be renegotiated is the way forward.

    • Leo says:

      Hi Robin, thanks very much for taking the time to comment.

      I respond to precisely this question in my book, so hope you don’t mind waiting until next month for a full answer. But for now there are two reasons why I don’t think the fact that the UK & US make up only a little more than one-seventh of global emissions (source: EDGAR) is a reason not to worry about the emission trajectories in those countries.

      Firstly, if those countries stopped making such an effort to cut emissions, other countries might be tempted to do the same. We’ve already seen some politicians suggesting the US planned Paris withdrawal is a justification for them to do the same. Unless the countries that can best afford to cut emissions do so, other countries may not be inclined to make so much effort. And, since only China emits more than the US, the argument that “we alone make little difference” could also be used by every other country.

      Secondly, separately from that argument about a tragedy of the commons, there seems to me to be a compelling moral argument. Given the threat of climate change, countries that can cut emissions should do so. The extent of climate change will be determined by the scale of emissions, and all emission cuts will limit it.

      As you say, the international debate is crucial. But I don’t see that this makes national debates any less important.

      There’s more on this in the book – and thanks again for commenting.

      • Robin Guenier says:

        Well Leo, I look forward to reading your book. But, from your post, it seems to me that it may not deal precisely with the issue I raised.

        The essential problem is that, as a direct result of pre-COP 21 negotiations led by China and India, the Paris deal allows “developing” countries (comprising about 82 percent of mankind and all the world’s poorest people) to give overriding priority to “economic and social development and poverty eradication”, merely encouraging them “to move over time towards economy-wide emissions reduction or limitation targets”. In other words, they have neither moral nor legal obligation to reduce emissions nor any real interest in doing so. Yet they were responsible for essentially the entire 60% expansion of GHG emissions since 1990 and are today responsible for over 65 percent of emissions. Unsurprisingly, given their determination to continue economic growth and tackle dreadful poverty, they are expanding fossil fuel consumption. Incidentally, several of them should be able to reduce their emissions if they so wished: for example, 18 have greater per capita emissions than the EU28.

        As I said, changing all that would be a huge and daunting international undertaking.

      • Robin Guenier says:

        Leo: I’ve bought and read your book. It’s well written and interesting. However, I bought it because you said it deals “precisely” with my concern, providing “a full answer”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

        Here again is what I said:

        “… cutting emissions quickly, doesn’t depend on changing the nature of the debate in the US and UK (responsible for only 15% of global emissions). It can be done only if the developing countries (responsible for over 65% of emissions) and Japan and Russia (another 9%) can be persuaded to prioritise emission reduction.”

        I noted (with detailed supporting data – LINK) that, under current international treaties, developing countries are entitled to give overriding priority to economic growth and poverty elimination and are exempt from any obligation (legal or moral) to reduce their CO2 emissions. It’s surely obvious that, unless that is reversed (and the Japanese and Russian governments persuaded to change their policy), there is simply no prospect of the radical cuts in emissions you say are necessary to reverse the trajectory of a world that is “hurtling towards disaster”? That’s the challenge – yet the book fails to confront it.

        Four observations:

        1. Throughout the book there are indications that you don’t really understand the content of the Paris Agreement. Here’s an example: “nearly every country in the world has now declared it will limit its greenhouse gas emissions” (page 8). Similar assertions are found on pages 49, 154, 164, 166 and 177. But there’s not, as you claim, a “global commitment to cut emissions”: Article 4.4 of the Agreement specifically exempts most countries from any obligation (legal or moral) to cut their emissions. In view of that basic misunderstanding, it’s perhaps not so surprising that the book fails to confront the central challenge of climate politics.

        2. The book’s ethos is that a key factor in dealing with global warming is a need to change the nature of public debate, to change public attitudes – with particular reference to the anglophone countries. It examines various aspects of why this is necessary and how it might be achieved, referring to the need to combat public apathy and to target “swing voters”. That may be relevant in Western democracies – but I suggest it’s of little importance compared with the determination of governments of countries responsible for three quarters of emissions to prioritise economic development – not because they’re apathetic about emission reduction, but because for them it’s a secondary issue.

        3. Your comment about the need to focus on those “who can be persuaded to support the measures that will be needed to prevent disastrous global warming” would be more apposite therefore if it were concerned, not for example with “swing” voters in the UK but with the Chinese Politburo. Likewise, you write about how it’s a poor use of time, money and energy to deal with “people who steadfastly oppose our goal”. Yet, by far, the most prominent of such people are in the governments of countries responsible for three quarters of global emissions. How can it possibly be a poor use of time etc. to ignore them – especially in view, for example, of the many new coal-fired power stations being built by such countries throughout the world (LINK).

        4. Aviation epitomises the problem. You say (page 172) that “it is hard to see how we can continue to expand aviation while avoiding disastrous climate change.” Yet IATA forecasts that by 2035 air travellers will have increased to 7.2 billion from 3.8 billion today: LINK. And China is planning to build 136 new airports by 2025: LINK. Do you think that your cutting back on flying can reverse all this? And, if not, do you really think disaster is unavoidable?

        I’m sorry Leo – but your book is disappointing.

  2. I’m not sure that your poll establishes what you think it does. Giving people a choice of eight things to worry about, out of the myriad things that might be bothering them, is not a reliable indication of what’s going on in their minds.

    The English do exactly what you might expect: i.e. name two things they’re very worried about and another three to show a reasonable level of concern. Americans are very worried on average about three things, no doubt because there are more things to worry about in the USA: racial tensions; a homicide rate off the scale for civilised countries; a prison population surpassing that of the worst dictatorial régimes; a decline in life expectancy among middle aged males; and the risk of nuclear war. None of those are on your list, so people make the best of a bad job and name something else.

    In my days as a market researcher I became a bit of an expert on this “something else.” If you’re sick, or unable to afford a home, or afflicted by noisy foreign neighbours, your first choice for “very worried” is easy. But you want to show that you’re not the sort of selfish person who only thinks of themselves, so you choose another one as a kind of insurance policy. Climate change or national debt? It’s a no brainer, isn’t it? Particularly for the 95% of the population who know nothing about either, but have been hearing for the past fifteen years that climate change is the greatest threat facing the planet.

    In these circumstances, the fact that 78% of the population are NOT very worried suggests that fifteen years of climate propaganda have been a colossal failure. Percentages of “very worrieds” for each of your eight worries range, quite narrowly from 15 to 36%. To put it crudely, if you gave a sample of monkeys with attention deficency disorder a series of buttons to press, you’d probably get a similar result.

    The fact that climate change is seen as a leftwing issue is easily explained. It’s the bleeding hearts in the coalmine effect, isn’t it? As a leftwing climate sceptic, I know perfectly well that climate change knows no politics. Hurricanes hit leftwing millionaires like Richard Branson on his private island in the British Virgins and the poor blacks on the French island of St Martin who’ve just elected a rightwing deputé alike.

    And as for “the consequences of climate change being seen as a left-wing concern,” I wouldn’t worry. Once it becomes clear that only rich people will be able to afford electric cars and air travel, the people will react by abolishing climate change. They may have to vote for a series of Trumps to do it, but it will happen.

    PS: I’m disappointed that you haven’t yet replied to Robin Guenier. I know him; my brother-in-law sold him a lawnmower. We disagree on matters of climate change, but we share an interest in injecting a bit of honesty into the debate.

    • Robin Guenier says:

      Hello Geoff – interesting to meet you here.

      I too have opinion research experience. In his book, Leo refers (page 19) to the John Cook et al study claiming that 97 percent of climate scientists agree humans are causing global warming. I believe that conclusion is unwarranted – but didn’t mention it here as it’s not relevant to my point.

      However, Leo might be interested to see my exchange with John Cook HERE. (Search Comments under “97 percent”.)

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