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Surveys show that both left- and right-leaning Americans support policies that slow climate change. So why aren’t we seeing more of these policies pass as legislation? In this episode of TILclimate (Today I Learned: Climate), MIT alum Parrish Bergquist joins host Laur Hesse Fisher to explain the significance of public opinion and climate change: what people believe, what influences their opinion and how policies are implemented. They also explore what bipartisan policy making could look like, and how to bridge the gap between support and action.
Parrish Bergquist, an MIT alum from the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Science and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Her research examines the development and implications of public attitudes about environmental protection, energy, and climate change; the implications of partisan polarization and nationalization for environmental policy outcomes; and how political actors and members of the public perceive, portray, and evaluate political issues, problems, and proposals. Prior to her current position, Professor Bergquist was a Postdoctoral Associate at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) from 2019 to 2020. In 2019, she received her Ph.D. in Political Science and Urban and Regional Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
For more episodes of TILclimate by the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative, visit tilclimate.mit.edu.
LHF: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome back to Today I Learned: Climate, the show where you learn about climate change from real scientists and experts. I’m your host Laur Hesse Fisher of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative.
This is our first episode of 2021 with a new president here in America, President Joe Biden, who has already made climate change one of the top issues of his presidency.
But to make some of the really big changes that our country needs to reduce emissions, we need action from both Republicans and Democrats -- in Congress and across the country.
So in this episode, we’re going to be opening up what Americans think about climate change and what influences their opinion. We’ll also talk about how this does -- or doesn’t -- get translated into policy, and what’s needed to get more action on climate change happening across the country.
For this episode, we spoke with an alum who got her PhD in Political Science and Urban and Regional Planning here at MIT, and who studies this stuff.
PB: [00:01:13] My name is Parrish Bergquist. I am an assistant professor of public policy at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. Most of my recent work is on public opinion about environmental issues, focused mostly around climate change. And the big question that I'm interested in is how to effectively address climate change within the American political system.
LHF: [00:01:33] Prof. Bergquist was part of a program at Yale that, with George Mason University, has been surveying Americans’ opinions about climate change for over a decade.
PB: [00:01:44] We take a bunch of different questions about people's beliefs and attitudes about global warming and use them to categorize people into six different groups based on how concerned they are and how much people know about this problem.
LHF: [00:01:58] So here’s what they found: let’s say you have ten random Americans in a room, what they found is that roughly 5 or maybe 6 of them will be worried about climate change. The other five are split: 2 get that it’s happening but are not worried, 2 question or outright deny the science, and 1 just doesn’t care.
PB: [00:02:19] That’s over half the country that thinks that this is an important issue and understands the science behind it.
That proportion is pretty high and it's higher right now than it's ever been.
LHF: [00:02:30] Yeah, in fact, of the more than 50% Americans who are worried about climate change, about half of them are really worried. And that number has more than doubled in the past 5 years.
How did that happen? Well, part of it is that the public is hearing different messages in the media than we were before.
PB: [00:02:52] The media plays a super important role. And the reason is, people, most people, do not read scientific reports. They really rely on the media to take these, scientific reports and translate them into everyday language and sort of summarize them.
So for a long time, the overwhelming majority of scientists have understood that the human causes of climate change are the main drivers of the climate change that we're experiencing now. But through the nineties and early 2000s, there was a reluctance on the part of the media to frame the scientific consensus about climate change as an overwhelming scientific consensus. And instead the media would sort of give due equal credence to both sides of this issue.
LHF: [00:03:39] Yeah, for decades, there has been an overwhelming consensus from scientists that climate change is real and driven by us, by people.
PB: [00:03:49] Starting in maybe the mid-2000s, the media started to portray this more realistically. There’s been a lot of media coverage about the impacts that climate change is having now. There's been a much stronger, clearer message coming out of the scientific community and I think that has gotten passed down through the media.
LHF: [00:04:08] OK... So... Americans now know more about climate change, they’re seeing it for themselves, and they’re more worried about it than ever before.
So great—sounds like everything is in place for some policy change on climate, right? Well… this is where the story of public opinion gets more complicated. Because it turns out, just because something’s popular, doesn’t mean that policymakers are going to sit up and take notice.
PB: [00:04:38] We can kind of think of two dimensions of public opinion about a particular policy. One is how popular the policy is. The other is how salient it is, which is how much people care about it.
We know that climate action is popular. There are high numbers of people who support this. But showing politicians that, “look how many people really care about this issue a lot, you would be rewarded for acting on it...” It makes it an easier ask if you can show that it’s salient with large numbers of the public.
LHF: [00:05:18] So think about it: what are the top issues on your mind when you cast your ballot? Candidates respond to those issues because they want your vote. If an issue isn’t enough of a priority for you to change your vote, that pressure’s not there.
In fact, if you don’t have a strong opinion about something, then research has shown that you’ll likely adopt the opinion of your political party.
PB: [00:05:46] Climate change is a really, it's a complex topic. And that's exactly the kind of issue where people are especially likely to follow the cues of their partisan leaders. They’re really likely to sort of adopt the positions that their party officials take.
LHF: [00:06:00] These messages from political figures are also called “elite cues.”
PB: [00:06:07] So when I'm talking about elite cues, we're really talking about, like, national level. There are people who shape the national level conversation, so the president, national political leaders. One thing that we've seen is that the words of elites have a major influence in the way that national public opinion moves. So voters tend to sort of adopt the issue position of their favorite candidate, rather than choosing a candidate that holds their preferred issue position.
LHF: [00:06:36] This is some wild stuff! We’d like to believe that if we hear the facts about an issue, we’ll form our own opinions and vote for candidates who share those opinions. But that’s only for the few issues that we really care about. For complicated, low-priority issues—which, for many Americans, includes climate change—we’re likely to outsource our opinions to the political leaders we already trust.
And depending on who you trust, you could be getting some very different cues.
Joe Biden: [00:07:07] Climate change is an existential threat to humanity. We have a moral obligation to deal with it.
Donald Trump: [00:07:15] All of this with the global warming—a lot of it’s a hoax. It’s a hoax. I mean, it’s a money-making industry, okay. It’s a hoax, a lot of it.
LHF: [00:07:23] And this has, in part, led us to where we are today.
PB: [00:07:27] Climate change is one of the issues with the strongest partisan divides in the country. So a huge number of Democrats believe that climate change is a huge problem. And far fewer Republicans believe that.
LHF: [00:07:39] Remember when we said that more than half of Americans are concerned about climate change? Well, when you break that down by political party, you get a very different story. In their April 2020 survey, Yale and George Mason found that over 90% of Democrats were worried about climate change… but less than 40% of Republicans were. If you look at the top ten issues for Republicans in the 2020 election, climate change didn’t make the list.
PB: [00:08:08] There's been a strong effort by the fossil fuel industry and utility companies to support particularly Republican elected officials and candidates for office who are dismissive of climate science and who oppose regulatory action that would reduce the clout of the fossil fuel industry in the American economy and in American politics.
What that means is that for congressional districts that elect Democrats versus Republicans, they're sending people to Congress with dramatically different views on this issue. The way our institutions are shaped means that you don't need to simply mobilize Democrats. You have to convince some Republicans as well. And that is the much more difficult task I think because of the low salience of the issue on the political right.
LHF: [00:08:59] But here’s the kicker: surve ys show that Republican voters, even if they aren’t worried about climate change… actually like a lot of climate policies.
PB: [00:09:11] There are some clean energy policies that do earn stronger Republican support. Those are things like government support of renewable energy research, tax incentives for clean vehicles and things like that. And I think people in general tend to support things that are gonna have either a low cost or that are going to actually provide benefits to them. Across the board, the public tends to be more supportive of regulatory approaches for the same reason. They don't see the costs directly.
LHF: [00:09:44] After the 2020 election, Yale and George Mason survey voters about their opinions on different climate policies. And they found that over 50% of Republicans support: regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, building solar and wind farms on public lands, and funding more research into renewable energy.
And Democrats support these policies, too
PB: [00:10:10] I think you have to work with the political realities that we have and push policies that are more popular now. Tying climate action to economic benefits has been shown to build public support for climate action in the US.
LHF: [00:10:24] So there are policies that get both Republican and Democrat support. But as we’ve learned in this episode, public support isn’t enough. You need support AND the issue to be a priority to get real change to happen.
PB: [00:10:40] There’s been a lot of work by the environmental movement to raise the salience of climate change. And I think you've seen that in a shift towards Democrats seeing this issue as much more important.
And that just has not happened on the, on the political right. There haven't been, you know, uh, grassroots organizations trying to raise the salience of this issue and having as much success as they have on the political left. There are groups, trying to sort of mobilize conservatives around climate change, but they haven't gotten off the ground to the same extent, and they're working against a really strong effort to undermine the salience of climate change within the Republican party, by those, by the same sort of fossil fuel interests that we've talked about already.
LHF: [00:11:23] What communication experts know is that people listen to other people that they trust. And there are a bunch of conservative groups out there trying to push climate action. There’s RepublicenEN, American Conservation Coalition, Conservation Hawks, DEPLOY/US, and the conservative caucus of Citizens Climate Lobby, and the list goes on. In our show notes, we’ll provide our list of politically conservative individuals and groups advocating for action on climate change. Because the science of climate change isn’t a political issue, but how to deal with it, is.
The MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative is walking the talk here: we have a project called Here & real, that leads cross-partisan conversations about climate change.
We’ve made these episodes short and nonpartisan so that they’re easy to share with people in your life no matter what side of the aisle they sit on. So please do! And we’ve got a whole bunch of new episodes that we’ll be releasing over the next few months, so hit subscribe to get notified when they come out. And -- hey! We won an AVA Digital Platinum award! Check out our statue -- and resources about public opinion on climate change -- on our Twitter page, TILclimate.
Thank you to Professor Bergquist for speaking with us for this episode and thank you for listening.
- To learn more about public opinion and climate change:
- YPCCC Politics and Global Warming April 2020 report – describes how Democratic, Independent, and Republican registered voters view global warming, climate and energy policies, and personal and collective action.
- YPCCC December 2020 report – describes how Democratic, Independent, and Republican registered voters view climate and energy policies.
- Pew Research Center - Important issues in the 2020 election
- For more about Prof. Parrish Bergquist and her work visit https://www.parrishb.com/
- In this Q&A , Prof. Bergquist focuses on identifying the levers for influencing policy, engaging people in policy change, and designing effective climate policies.
- For more episodes of TILclimate by the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative, visit tilclimate.mit.edu.
- For an overview of climate change: Climate Science and Climate Risk: A Primer (Kerry Emanuel)
- We said, “Of the more than 50% of Americans who are worried about climate change, about half of them are really worried. And that number has doubled in the past 5 years.” Here, we’re referencing what Yale’s Program calls the “alarmed” — in 2015, 11% were in the “alarmed” category; in 2020, that number rose to 26%. (Source)
- The quote from Greta Thunberg [7:50] came from her speech at the Global Climate Strike in New York City on September 23, 2019.
- The quote from now President Joe Biden [00:03] came from the final presidential debate on October 22, 2020. The quote from former President Donald Trump [42:53] came from a campaign rally in Hilton Head, SC on December 30, 2015.
- For more on conservative voices advocating for climate action visit:
- Climate Solutions Caucus
- Conservatives for Energy Freedom
- Conservation Hawks
- Americans for Carbon Dividends
- Climate Leadership Council
- Citizens' Climate Lobby Conservative Caucus
- American Energy Innovation Council
- Energy Innovation Reform Project
- Clear Path
- R Street Institute
- Center for Energy Security and Climate Economics
- Green Scissors
- Conservative Energy Network
- Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions
- Alliance for Market Solutions
- American conservation coalition
After an introduction to media literacy, students explore data from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.