Public Resource

Environmental Polling Roundup - September 10th, 2021

David Gold, Environmental Polling Consortium
09-10-2021

This post includes a roundup of climate + environment headlines from this week’s public polls, good data points to highlight, and a full roundup including key takeaways from each poll - including new polls on the Build Back Better budget, a study on the impact of language in the natural gas debate, and extreme weather polling.

 

HEADLINES

  • Navigator - Specific details engender broad support for the Build Back Better budget, even when it’s framed as a Democratic bill (ReleaseSlide DeckTopline)
  • Washington Post/ABC News - The Build Back Better budget has slim majority support when described as $3.5 trillion in spending for “expanded social programs, educational assistance and programs to address climate change” (ToplineCrosstabs)
  • No Labels & American Action Network - Opposition polls claim that Americans want to pause on the kind of government spending included in the Build Back Better budget (Axios Article on No Labels PollNo Labels ReleaseAmerican Action Network Release)
  • Yale Program on Climate Change Communication - Language used to describe gas as an energy source is hugely impactful in shaping opinions; Americans have positive attitudes about “natural gas,” but not about methane (Academic PaperYPCCC Article)
  • Economist/YouGov - Americans continue to attribute recent extreme weather events more to climate change than natural patterns; nearly one in four say they were personally impacted by Eastern seaboard hurricanes (ToplineCrosstabs)

 

GOOD DATA POINTS TO HIGHLIGHT

  • Voters support the Build Back Better budget legislation by a 70%-21% margin after learning basic details about its provisions, with more support than opposition among Republican voters [Navigator]
  • 72% of voters support investing in clean energy infrastructure, like solar panels and wind turbines, as part of the budget legislation in Congress [Navigator]
  • By a 52%-34% margin, Americans agree that climate change is an emergency [Yahoo/YouGov]
  • 51% of Americans view climate change as an “existential threat that must be addressed now with major legislation,” while just 19% believe it is “not a real threat” [Yahoo/YouGov]
  • More Americans say that climate change and the environment is the single most important issue area to them than any other issue area besides health care and jobs/economy [Economist/YouGov]
  • 70% of New York State voters support the Climate and Community Investment Act, which would impose a fee on polluters to fund a green economy [Data for Progress]

 

FULL ROUNDUP

 

Navigator - Specific details engender broad support for the Build Back Better budget, even when it’s framed as a Democratic bill (Release, Slide Deck, Topline)

 

The latest Navigator poll finds that voters support the Build Back Better budget by a 70%-21% margin. Wording matters a lot when polling on the budget, as the public is still hazy on what Democrats are specifically proposing spending on, so here’s the full wording of Navigator’s question for context:

 

“As you may know, President Biden and Democrats have proposed new legislation to provide paid family and medical leave, establish a universal Pre-K program, expand Medicare coverage for seniors to include dental, vision, and hearing coverage, lower health care costs by allowing Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices, provide tax breaks for clean energy, and expand the Child Tax Credit for most families with children. Do you support or oppose this legislation?”

 

Note that Navigator didn’t include the proposed price tag but did specify that the plan is being put forward by Biden and Democrats. 

 

To recap from some previous roundups, here are some findings that have consistently held true in polling on the Build Back Better budget / reconciliation bill (and, going back further, the American Jobs Plan):

  1. The more specific policy elements that are included in the description of the bill, the more positively voters tend to respond to it
  2. Mentioning the bill’s climate and/or clean energy focus tends to have a positive impact on support
  3. The price tag does not seem to have a major impact on support
  4. Partisan framing (describing the bill as a proposal by Biden and/or Democrats) tends to have a negative impact on support by moving Republican voters against the idea; Democratic voters overwhelmingly support it with or without partisan framing

 

Given these factors, it’s especially encouraging that the Navigator poll found broad support for the legislation even when framing it as a proposal from Biden and Democrats. In fact, the poll found more support than opposition among Republican voters (47% support/40% oppose). 

 

It’s safe to assume that the level of cross-partisan support on display here is largely driven by the specific policies that Navigator mentioned in describing the bill. Senior care, paid family and medical leave, and clean energy have consistently ranked among the most popular provisions of the bill in public polling, and this Navigator poll indicates that Medicare prescription drug costs are also one of the biggest drivers of support

 

While these elements tend to be especially popular, it’s worth noting that all of the 16 individual policies that Navigator tested in the poll as possible provisions of the bill garnered majority support - including these 10 policies that tested at 70%+:

  • 86% support reducing the cost of prescription drugs by giving Medicare the power to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower prices
  • 85% support expanding Medicare to include dental, vision, and hearing coverage
  • 79% support raising wages for home care workers who help with elderly, injured, and disabled patients
  • 78% support lowering health insurance premiums for families that buy coverage on their own by an average of $50/month
  • 77% support requiring corporations that are currently paying zero in taxes to pay a minimum tax of 15% on their profits
  • 77% support increasing funding to crack down on tax evasion by large corporations and the wealthiest Americans
  • 77% support expanding access to long-term care for millions of families that currently can’t afford it
  • 72% support raising taxes on people with incomes in the top 2%
  • 72% support investing in clean energy infrastructure, like solar panels and wind turbines
  • 71% support raising taxes on those earning over $1 million per year from selling stocks and bonds, known as capital gains

 

And pulling from the accompanying slide deck, Communicating on the Build Back Better Budget: A Guide for Advocates, here are some of Navigator’s key messaging takeaways:

  • Lowering prescription drug prices and expanding Medicare to include vision, dental, and hearing coverage are the two most broadly supported elements to focus on
  • The ongoing pandemic, the all-time high wealth gap between the rich and everyone else, and the rising cost of living are all convincing reasons to support the budget
  • Focusing on (a) how the plan is paid for by taxes on corporations and the top 2% of households and (b) how it will lower costs for everyday Americans by reducing health insurance, drug, and energy prices are both effective rebuttals to cost-based criticisms of the budget

 

Washington Post/ABC News - The Build Back Better budget has slim majority support when described as $3.5 trillion in spending for “expanded social programs, educational assistance and programs to address climate change” (Topline, Crosstabs)

 

Providing further evidence of how much descriptions of the Build Back Better budget shape perceptions, this Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that American adults support the budget by a 53%-41% margin when it’s described as “the federal government spending three and a half trillion dollars on new or expanded social programs, educational assistance and programs to address climate change.”

 

Those aren’t bad numbers, but they’re significantly tighter than what Navigator found above, so it’s worth unpacking what accounts for the difference. 

 

For one thing, Washington Post/ABC News didn’t include explicit partisan cues - though “expanded social programs” and “programs to address climate change” certainly make it sound like a Democratic bill. Even so, they actually found more partisan polarization than the Navigator poll that described the bill as a proposal from Biden and Democrats: in the Washington Post/ABC poll, Democrats support the bill by an 82%-12% margin and Republicans oppose it by a 77%-20% margin. 

 

The Washington Post/ABC News poll also included the $3.5 trillion price tag, whereas Navigator didn’t. A lot of previous polling indicates that voters don’t particularly care about the price tag, but I’m willing to accept that it could have dissuaded a small segment of voters here. 

 

The biggest difference between the two polls’ questions, then, is how they describe what’s in the bill. Whereas Navigator included several ideas that are broadly popular across the political spectrum - including lowering Medicare prescription drug costs and expanding Medicare to include more types of coverage - Washington Post/ABC News only mentioned the vague buckets of social programs, educational assistance and programs to address climate change. 

 

The differences between the two polls help to illustrate a couple of important things:

  1. Public opinion on the reconciliation bill is very unsettled and highly dependent on how it’s described
  2. There is a lot of power in specificity when describing what’s in the bill

 

To point #2 here, it isn’t that persuasive to simply tell voters that the bill includes action to address climate change. The specific provisions in the bill that address climate change - including grid modernization, clean energy investment, and energy efficiency incentives - are much more broadly popular than generic “action to address climate change.”

 

No Labels & American Action Network - Opposition polls claim that Americans want to pause on the kind of government spending included in the Build Back Better budget (Axios Article on No Labels Poll, No Labels Release, American Action Network Release)

 

Here are a couple of polls released this week from groups that oppose the full Build Back Better budget. 

 

The No Labels poll shows that, when forced to choose between the two options, 60% of voters favor a “strategic pause to understand the implications of spending $3.5 trillion” while 40% say we “need large-scale social welfare spending now.” And American Action Network polled seven battleground congressional districts and found that, on average, voters in these districts disapprove of Democrats “spending $3.5 trillion in new social welfare spending” by a 55%-36% margin.

 

There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical of these poll releases, which both come from groups trying to undermine support for the bill. You can look at the question wording and judge for yourself how much you think each put their thumb on the scale. What I find instructive about these poll releases is that they use the exact same term - “social welfare spending” - in their attempts to generate unflattering data points, and don’t provide any specifics about what that spending actually includes. 

 

In other words, opponents of the Build Back Better budget want to frame it as a “social welfare spending” bill and leave voters in the dark on the specifics, making it incumbent on supporters of the full budget to educate voters about the popular proposals it contains.

 

Yale Program on Climate Change Communication - Language used to describe gas as an energy source is hugely impactful in shaping opinions; Americans have positive attitudes about “natural gas,” but not about methane (Academic Paper, YPCCC Article)

 

A paper by researchers at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which was just published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, demonstrates that Americans tend to view the term “natural gas” positively, even going so far as to describe it as “clean,” but think more negatively about methane (the primary component of natural gas) and associate it with pollution.

 

Pulling from the abstract: 

 

“In many countries, natural gas is perceived more favorably than other fossil fuels. Here, we experimentally test (N = 2931) how perceptions of natural gas vary depending on what it is called. We find that Americans have stronger positive feelings for the term “natural gas” than “natural methane gas” (d = 0.59), “fossil gas” (d = 0.80), “fracked gas” (d = 0.81), “methane” (d = 0.94), and “methane gas” (d = 0.96). 

 

Democrats and Republicans both reported more positive views of “natural gas” than “natural methane gas” or “methane [gas].” But the patterns for the two political parties differed for perceptions of “fossil gas” and “fracked gas,” which were both viewed relatively positively by Republicans but negatively by Democrats. 

 

Analyses of open-ended word associations found that many participants associated methane with words like “pollution” and “global warming,” whereas they associated natural gas with words like “clean.”

 

The YPCCC elaborates more on the strategic implications of the experiment on their website (my own emphasis added with bolding), suggesting that advocates should shift more to describing natural gas as “methane gas” in general and consider using the terms “fossil gas” and “fracked gas” with base audiences:

 

“Overall, we find that the terms “methane” and “methane gas” are perceived as bad by both Democrats and Republicans. By contrast, the terms “fossil gas” and “fracked gas” have contradictory effects among Democrats (who perceive them as bad) and Republicans (who perceive them as good).

 

...

 

Strategically, campaigners seeking to reduce American reliance on this fossil fuel may find some additional value in using the terms “fossil gas” and “fracked gas” among Democrats, as Democrats (and perhaps advocates themselves) perceive these terms slightly more negatively than all the other names for this fossil fuel. However, using these same terms may actually be counterproductive with Republicans, who currently interpret these terms opposite to the way advocates intend.

 

Economist/YouGov - Americans continue to attribute recent extreme weather events more to climate change than natural patterns; nearly one in four say they were personally impacted by Eastern seaboard hurricanes (Topline, Crosstabs)

 

The Economist/YouGov national tracking poll has been regularly gauging Americans’ attitudes about climate change and extreme weather this year, and their latest poll shows that nearly half of Americans (49%) believe that recent extreme weather events - including the recent Western droughts and wildfires and the severe hurricanes and floods in the East - are the result of climate change. Meanwhile, 36% believe that these kinds of events “just happen from time to time” and 15% aren’t sure.

 

Previous Economist/YouGov tracking shows that hurricanes, in isolation, don’t seem to be the most salient example to draw the connection between climate change and extreme weather. When Economist/YouGov asked separately about five different types of extreme weather events a couple of weeks ago, the percentages attributing each event to climate change ranged from a high of 57% for rising sea levels to a low of 44% for severe hurricanes.

 

This isn’t to say that advocates shouldn’t use hurricanes to explain how climate change is impacting people today - if anything, we need to expose the public to more messaging about how climate change contributes to severe hurricanes in order to make the climate/hurricane connection as clear as the connection between climate and hot weather events.

 

Whether they view it as a result of climate change or not, Americans are acutely feeling the impacts of hurricane season: 24% in the poll say they’ve personally felt the impacts of severe hurricanes on the Eastern seaboard, slightly more than have felt the impacts of recent western wildfires (20%), flooding (20%), and the western drought emergency (18%).