Opinion Polls Underestimate Americans’ Concern about the Environment: Tweaking the Most Important Question

SUMMARY OF REPORT

Click here to read the full report

Introduction

When pollsters ask Americans to name the most important problem facing the country, fewer than 3 percent mention the environment. But when asked to name the most serious problem facing the planet if left unchecked, the environment and global warming rise to the top, according to a May 2010 study by Woods Institute Senior Fellow and Stanford Professor of communication and political science Jon Krosnick

Krosnick and colleagues from Stanford University collaborated with the Associated Press to analyze the results of a recent Internet survey of 906 adults. When asked “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?” about 49 percent of respondents answered the economy or unemployment, while only 1 percent mentioned the environment or global warming.

But when asked, “What do you think will be the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?” 25 percent said the environment or global warming, and only 10 percent picked the economy. In fact, environmental issues were cited more often than any other category, including terrorism, which was only mentioned by 10 percent of respondents.

“For years, the wording used in traditional surveys has systematically underestimated the priority that the public has placed on global warming and the environment,” Krosnick says. ”To fully understand public concern about these issues, traditional surveys should be asking a different question.”

The results of the study confirmed that the phrasing of a question has an impact on the responses: “How a question is phrased can significantly change the results,” says Krosnick.

Internet survey

For the Stanford study, the research team analyzed the results of two national surveys. The first was a September 2009 Internet poll of 906 adults, conducted by the polling firm Abt SRBI. Respondents were randomly asked one of the following open-ended questions:

1. “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?”

In this traditional MIP question, about 49 percent answered the economy or unemployment, while only 1 percent mentioned the environment or global warming.

2. “What do you think is the most important problem facing the world today?”

Substituting the word “country” with “world” produced a significant change: 7 percent mentioned environmental issues, while 32 percent named the economy or unemployment.

3. “What do you think will be the most important problem facing the world in the future?”

When asked to consider the future of the planet, 14 percent chose the environment or global warming, while economic issues slipped to 21 percent.

4. “What do you think will be the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?”

This time, 25 percent said the environment or global warming, and only 10 percent picked the economy or unemployment.

“Thus, when asked to name the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it, one-quarter of all Americans mentioned either global warming or the environment,” Krosnick said. “In fact, environmental issues were cited more often in response to question 4 than any other category, including terrorism, which was only mentioned by 10 percent of respondents.”

Stanford-AP Environment Poll

The researchers found similar results when they analyzed a November 2009 telephone survey of 1,055 adults sponsored by the Woods Institute for the Environment and the Associated Press (AP).

When asked the traditional MIP question, “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today,” 54 percent said economic issues, and just 2 percent mentioned environmental problems.

But when asked, “What do you think will be the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it,” only 16 percent named the economy and unemployment, while 21 percent said global warming and the environment.

The Sanford-AP Environment Poll also asked, “How much effort do you think the federal government in Washington should put into dealing with the serious problems the world will face in the future if nothing is done to stop them?” Three out of four respondents said they wanted the government to devote “a great deal” or “a lot” of effort to combat serious problems, such as global warming, in the future.

“Contrary to what traditional surveys suggest, we found strong evidence that Americans attach a great deal of significance to global warming and the environment,” Krosnick said. “Therefore, to accurately measure the American public’s issue priorities, it may be useful for national surveys to include alternative questions that emphasize future problems and their solutions.”

The Stanford study is co-authored by undergraduate student Samuel B. Larson; graduate student David Scott Yeager; and Trevor Tompson, director of surveys at AP. The study was funded by the Woods Institute for the Environment.