Researchers from George Mason University asked nearly 500 scientists about climate change and the results were unequivocal: 84% agreed that human-induced global warming is occurring; and only 5% disagreed that human activity is a significant contributor. Yet when the Americans are asked what the most important problem facing society is, the answer is rarely climate change.
But does this really mean that the public doesn’t think global warming is a significant problem? A 2011 Stanford University study published in Public Opinion Quarterly, “Measuring Americans’ Issue Priorities,” looks at the question using three experiments embedded in national surveys. Two polls were done through the Internet and the third conducted by telephone. The study looks at how the framing of questions can yield different answers.
In the first experiment, more than 900 adults were polled by Internet and randomly asked one of four versions of the “most important problem” question, each phrased in a slightly different way. The results included:
- The traditional Gallup “most important problem” question focuses on the U.S. and the present situation. When the question was phrased this way, 49% of respondents to the first poll specified the economy or unemployment as the most pressing problem, and only 1% mentioned climate change, global warming or the environment.
- The second version of the question had a global focus: “What do you think is the most important problem facing the world today?” To this, 32% of the respondents specified the economy or unemployment, while 7% said global warming or the environment.
- The third version had a global, forward-looking focus: “What do you think will be the most important problem facing the world in the future?” Here, 21% of those responded the economy or unemployment, while 14% mentioned the environment or global warming.
- The final version of the question stressed the consequences of inaction: “What do you think will be the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?” Of those polled, only 10% responded the economy or unemployment, while 25% named global warming or the environment as the world’s most pressing issue.
The second experiment, conducted by telephone, involved more than 1,000 adults. Respondents were asked about what they considered the most important problem to be and also how much effort the government should devote to solving it. When the question was phrased traditionally, only 2% said global warming or the environment. When the consequences of inaction were stressed, 21% said global warming or the environment. Furthermore, 76% of respondents wanted “a lot or a great deal of government effort to be devoted” to solving the issue.
The third experiment explored the wording changes that lead to the differing response rates in the first two polls. It determined that, as the researchers state, that “each wording alteration had the same effect regardless of the other words in the question.”
“The traditional [most important problem] question has consistently shown that very few Americans named global warming or the environment as the country’s most important problem, a finding replicated here,” the researchers write. “But asking a differently worded MIP question yielded different results: global warming and the environment appear to be a much higher priority for Americans.” Based on this finding, the authors suggest that polling organizations should supplement traditional questions with additional questions that focus on the world’s problems in the future.
Keywords: global warming, climate politics