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Public Opinion on Climate Change

August 19, 2021
Evan Baldonado and Jordan Deasy

Hello from Stanford campus and New York City! We (Evan Baldonado and Jordan Deasy) are currently working in the Stanford Political Psychology Research Group (PPRG), researching public opinion on global warming and climate change.

Before starting at the lab, we were looking forward to joining a well-established research operation that has years of involvement in the field, as well as countless journal publications and wonderful fellow researchers. Being a part of this lab has helped us realize that, as researchers, we are truly a part of something bigger.

As young people and concerned citizens, we note that climate change has become an increasingly important concern of many Americans. In fact, data that we have compiled so far confirms this:

Bar graph

This graph shows data from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs/GfK Knowledge Networks, collected in 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. Participants were asked the question, “(Below is a list of possible threats to the vital interest of the United States in the next 10 years. For each one, please select whether you see this as a critical threat, an important but not critical threat, or not an important threat at all.)...Climate change”

Bar graph

This graph shows data from Gallup, collected in 2016, 2019, and 2021. Participants were asked the question, “I am going to read you a list of possible threats to the vital interest of the United States in the next 10 years. For each one, please tell me if you see this as a critical threat, an important but not critical threat, or not an important threat at all. Global warming or climate change.”

This graph shows data from Abt Associates/Pew Global Attitudes Project, collected in 2014, 2016, 2019, and 2020. Participants were asked the question, “I'd like your opinion about some possible international concerns for the United States. Do you think that...global climate change...is a major threat, a minor threat, or not a threat to the United States?”

All graphs above appear to show an increase in public concern in recent years. However, they come from different sources, and their numbers do not align exactly. For example, in 2016 the data from Gallup register significantly higher than that from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs/GfK Knowledge Networks (50% versus 39%). The Abt Associates/Pew Global Attitudes Project number is even larger, coming in at 53%.

In continuing our work, we hope to tease out why these differences may occur.

Between Gallup’s and Chicago Council on Global Affairs/GfK Knowledge Networks’ data, could the difference be due to the question’s wording? For example, does asking about “climate change” or “global warming or climate change” make a difference?

Maybe, there’s something about the way the samples were recruited or about the modes of the survey.

Possibly, the month the survey was conducted in matters. Gallup’s survey was run consistently in February, a winter month, while Chicago Council on Global Affairs/GfK Knowledge Networks’s ran in spring/summer. Do people’s perceptions of climate change differ depending on the season?

Or, could there be something else entirely that could explain the difference?

As a part of our work with PPRG, we compile, analyze, and visualize data from a wide variety of sources in hopes of uncovering the “why” behind differences in various public opinion surveys. With climate opinion research an ever-popular field, it is vital that we survey and seek to understand the state of the field.