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The climate crisis is upon us, but pollsters keep putting their thumb on the scale against climate action
A new study out today attributes the deadly and destructive heat waves directly to climate change. The Washington Post reports:
The deadly, protracted heat waves that have scorched parts of North America and Europe this month would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change, according to a new study published Tuesday.
In recent years, the group has used such methods to identify dozens of heat waves, extreme rainfalls, hurricanes, droughts and floods made more likely or more intense by climate change. Some, such as the 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave that killed hundreds of people, were also found to be “virtually impossible” in a world unaltered by greenhouse gas emissions.
Also today, Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent writes about young voters shifting “in a markedly progressive direction on multiple issues that are deeply important to them,” adding:
[S]upport for government doing more to curb climate change soared to 57 percent in 2020 [among young voters] before subsiding to 50 percent this year. That small dip may reflect preoccupation with economic doldrums unleashed by covid-19. While that 50 percent could be higher, the issue has seen a 21-point shift, and the polling question asks if respondents want action on climate “even at the expense of economic growth.” [emphasis in original]
Sargent’s piece, about the progressive views of young voters and the threat this poses to a Republican Party that is racing to repeal the 20th century, is worth reading in full. I’m going to focus on that climate change poll question Sargent mentions, and the broader flaw in climate change polling it represents.
The question Sargent cites comes from the The Spring 2023 Harvard Youth Poll, conducted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The Harvard Youth Poll is one of a small handful of gold-standard1 publicly-available resources when it comes to understanding the political opinions of young Americans.2 But the wording of that climate question is absolutely indefensible.
Take a look at how the IOP presents it in their “key takeaways” from the poll:
Over the last decade, we have tracked a significant shift toward young Americans favoring more progressive government interventions. Among 14 typology questions we have included in the survey for at least a decade, we found double digit movement among eight topic areas. In four areas, we found a shift of at least 20 points.
Basic health insurance is a right for all people, and if someone has no means of paying for it, the government should provide it. (2013 agree: 42%, 2023: 65%).
Basic necessities, such as food and shelter, are a right that government should provide to those unable to afford them. (2013 net agree: 44%, 2023: 62%).
The government should spend more to reduce poverty. (2013 net agree: 35%, 2023: 59%).
Government should do more to curb climate change, even at the expense of economic growth. (2013 net agree: 29%, 2023: 50%). (emphasis in original)
At a quick glance, it might appear that young people are less supportive of government action on climate change than they are of other progressive policies. But look closer: the climate question is rigged. For climate change, and climate change alone, Harvard included in its question an argument against acting on climate change: “even at the expense of economic growth.” Questions about government spending to provide health insurance and food and shelter and to reduce poverty contained no such clause — no “even if it means raising taxes,” for example. Only when asking about climate change did Harvard give respondents a reason to oppose government action.
Even if the premise that action on climate change is inconsistent with economic growth was justified3 there would be no justification for including a downside to climate action while omitting any hint of downside from questions about action on other issues. This approach artificially deflates support for government action on climate change relative to other issues. It makes it impossible to meaningfully compare views on climate action to views on other topics. Simply put, the question is structurally rigged, even before we get to the content of the question.
And the content — the implication that action on climate change would come “at the expense of economic growth” — is nonsense. Climate change itself is a threat to economic growth. Taking aggressive action to combat climate change is necessary to protect our economic wellbeing.4 One simple way to think about this is that there aren’t going to be a lot of jobs in cities that are underwater, or towns that have burned down. But we needn’t rely on common sense or intuition to understand that climate change is a threat to our economic wellbeing; plenty of robust research and analysis by economists, academics, and the private sector have made this clear.
For example, the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago:
Overall, climate change will harm the U.S. economy, even with modest amounts of warming. The U.S. economy would stand to lose between about 1 percent to 4 percent of GDP annually by the end of the century through effects to mortality, labor and the energy sector alone under a high emissions scenario.
The New York Times reported in 2021:
Rising temperatures are likely to reduce global wealth significantly by 2050, as crop yields fall, disease spreads and rising seas consume coastal cities, a major insurance company warned Thursday, highlighting the consequences if the world fails to quickly slow the use of fossil fuels.
The effects of climate change can be expected to shave 11 percent to 14 percent off global economic output by 2050 compared with growth levels without climate change, according to a report from Swiss Re, one of the world’s largest providers of insurance to other insurance companies.
Global temperatures are likely to increase as much 2.6 degrees by 2050 based on current trajectories, Swiss Re reported.
If that happens, the economy of the United States would be as much as 7 percent smaller than in a world without climate change, the report estimated.
During the past 40 years, the United States has experienced almost 300 weather and climate-related disasters that exceeded $1 billion in losses each, noted Donald L. Griffin, a vice president at the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, which represents insurance companies.
Last year alone, there were 22 such billion-dollar disasters.
If climate change continues unabated, he said, the cost of insurance risks becoming too high in at-risk areas.
A World Economic Forum article makes clear that taking action to combat climate change would be an economic boon, not a negative:
At the heart of the Deloitte Economics Institute’s recently released Global Turning Point report is the question – “What if we seized this opportunity?”
The report examines two possibilities: global action and global inaction. Economic modelling reveals the growth and opportunities that could lie ahead in the next 50 years if we take swift and substantive global climate action, compared to an economic baseline of insufficient action that considers mounting damages and lost opportunity. The takeaway? If we take decisive action now, there is potential to gain $43 trillion in net present value to the global economy by 2070.
Yet American pollsters continue to put their thumb on the scale when measuring public opinion about climate change, by asking questions that falsely suggest climate action will harm economic growth. Harvard is far from alone in this; it’s something close to standard practice. Pew Research, for example — perhaps the gold standard in publicly-available opinion research — regularly asks respondents whether they think “Stricter environmental laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy” or “Stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost.” Note that both options embed the premise that environmental protection hurts the economy. Pew doesn’t give respondents the chance to indicate a belief that environmental protection will help our economic wellbeing. They simply don’t allow for that possibility.5
This pattern of embedding in poll questions about climate change a reason to oppose strong government action on climate change is not only inconsistent with robust economic analysis that finds climate action is essential to economic wellbeing, it is also inconsistent with the way pollsters ask about most other topics.
I can’t recall seeing a public pollster ask “Should we reduce the federal budget deficit, even at the expense of economic growth”? I bet you can’t, either. Yet such loaded questions are the norm when it comes to climate change.6
Americans are currently struggling through unprecedented heat waves; much of the west faces catastrophic annual wildfires and the unhealthy air they bring. In the midwest and eastern U.S., which doesn’t traditionally suffer from wildfires like the west, 70 million Americans are suffering through poor air quality due to Canadian wildfires. The climate crisis, still considered by too many a future threat, is fully upon us. It’s long past time for everyone to get much more serious about it. That includes the pollsters who measure how seriously our fellow Americans take climate change.7
During my time at NextGen America from 2015-19, I led a robust opinion research program in support of NextGen’s massive young voter mobilization efforts. The Harvard poll was invaluable in informing our own research, and our understanding of our audience. It’s a good and important poll, despite what I’m about to say about the wording of this particular question.
The Spring 2023 HYP surveyed 2,069 Americans between 18- and 29-years old between March 13 and 22, 2023.
It is not; I’ll get to that part soon.
Not to mention our health and, you know, lives.
It isn’t just the pollsters, of course – the assumption that sound environmental and climate policies and economic growth are inherently at odds has long been embedded in media coverage of climate change and the environment.
It is important to note that, unlike the loaded climate change questions we routinely see, such a question about potential negative economic consequences of deficit reduction would, in at least some circumstances, be based on sound economics.
Harvard has been asking about climate this way for a decade, at least. I’m sure they — and other pollsters similarly situated — are reluctant to change their wording now, because it would make it impossible to assess shifts in public sentiment over time. That’s a real problem, but not one I have much sympathy for; it stems from having written bad questions in the first place. Bad questions that for a very long time have been suggesting artificially low public support for climate action and have thus contributed to government inaction on climate change. And in any case, continuing to ask rigged questions for the sake of trend lines is a poor solution.