Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Not Such Happy News: What the Yale Report on The Potential Impact of Global Warming on the 2012 Presidential Election (also) means

Yesterday, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication released a fascinating report entitled The Potential Impact of Global Warming on the 2012 Presidential Election. The report outlined how the majority of 'undecided' voters' views on global warming were much more similar to those of voters who were likely to dent President Obama's chad come the election in six weeks time. The headlines from that report are (though I thoroughly recommend reading the original):
  • The number of 'undecided' voters who believe anthropogenic climate change is happening is much closer to the number of likely-Obama voters who think the same, than likely-Romney voters.
  • Global warming is a more important issue for those who are likely to vote for President Obama and 'undecideds' than it is for those who are likely to vote for Mitt Romney.
  • The saliency of global warming is actually fairly high in this election, with 55% of 'undecided' voters saying that global warming is 'one of several issues' that would affect their choice of President, compared to 69% of likely-Obama voters, and only 32% of likely-Romney voters who say the same.
  • Generally, the US electorate is open to more and new information on global warming, with 86% of 'undecided' voters, 70% of likely-Obama voters, and 66% of likely-Romney voters saying they need at least 'a little more information' about global warming.
This is all good news, seemingly. It means that President Obama is seen as the better choice (from a global warming activism perspective), and that undecided voters are more likely to vote for Obama than Romney, particularly when this decision is based on global warming considerations (which it seems to be at least partially). Furthermore, it shows that the electorate is open to learning more about global warming, with more education presuming greater support for action. The Yale Report, then, is suitably upbeat in its tone. However, there is another side to these findings that is worth exploring. Sadly, it is not all good news.

It depends where global warming is on that list of 'several' issues (and it's probably not that high)

The Yale Report states that voters in all three categories say that 'global warming' is "one of several issues" that would affect their candidate choice (see figure 1, below). Typically, though, the environment (and it's associated issues such as global warming) tend to come quite low in polls measuring which issues are most important to voters. In this Gallup poll, most Americans cite the candidates' economic plans, party, and perceptions of President Obama's nondescript performance over the past four years as reasons for voting for their preferred candidate, with environmental considerations not even making the list. And in this poll, the economy, budget deficit, healthcare, and immigration are all cited as 'important issues' to voters while (again) neither the environment nor global warming make the list. While these are only two polls, and I make no claims for them to be absolutely representative of all polls, they are also not anomalies. Simply put, while 'global warming' may be 'one of many issues' that decide people's vote, so are an awful lot of other issues, and these other issues are more likely to actually decide the individuals vote when push comes to shove. What the Yale Report finding actually tells us, then, is that if global warming were to be the deciding issue, then more of the undecided voters would vote for President Obama than Romney. This is fine, but it's not the same as undecided voters choosing President Obama just because they share similar views on global warming, and shouldn't be confused as such.

Figure 1: global warming as 'one of several issues' affecting voter choice

'Openess' to new information on global warming doesn't mean voters are likely to support action on global warming once they have this information

The Yale Report generally adopts a positive tone when discussing its finding on the 'openess' of the electorate to changing their views on global warming (see figure 2), and their receptiveness to new information on global warming (see figure 3). They seem to implicitly take this to mean that there is an information gap and see an opportunity to plug this gap with what would be (presumably - and this is a presumption as the report doesn't go into detail) 'good' information on global warming which (given the trends within the scientific and policy communities) is likely to support action on global warming. This isn't necessarily the case. While this is certainly one (not unfair) interpretation, there are also alternative interpretations that are less encouraging.

Figure 2: Voters likely to change their minds on global warming

Figure 3: Voters open to new information on global warming

Voters can change their mind both ways

The Yale Report says that 40% of 'undecided' voters say they could reasonably easily change their mind on global warming, with 36% of likely-Romney voters and 23% of likely-Obama voters agreeing. The Yale Report says that this means that "a large part of the electorate is receptive to learning more about this issue".  While it is perhaps promising that 36% of likely-Romney (read, likely-anti-action) voters may change their mind, it is actually discouraging that 40% of 'undecideds' may change their mind. Given the information that the Yale Report provides elsewhere, it seems these 40% of 'undecided' voters are currently more likely to support action on global warming (or at least not be overtly against such action). This means that if they changed their minds, this 40% (or at least a decent portion of) are more likely to join the 24% of likely-Romney voters who are very unlikely to change their minds and be against action on global warming. This goes all the more so for the 36% of likely-Romney voters, who may well join this 24% at the expense of the 39% of likely-Obama voters who are very unlikely to change their minds (and are most likely to support action on global warming).

Furthermore, it is actually worrying that 23% of of likely-Obama voters are open to changing their minds on global warming, unless this 23% happen to be the exact 23% of likely-Obama voters that believe global warming is down to natural variations (which the report doesn't say it is, and it seems unlikely to be). This means that a large chunk of those most likely to support action on global warming are actually very open to changing their minds from this position to a less action-oriented position. So, while there certainly is the opportunity to persuade and change some voters' minds on global warming, their minds are rife for change in both directions.

It depends what information voters are open to

According to the Yale Report, 70% of likely-Obama voters, 66% of likely-Romney voters, and 86% of 'undecided' voters want more information on global warming. The Yale Report says this "suggests that Americans across the political spectrum are receptive to new information on the topic – so long as communication efforts are effectively targeted and communicated in ways appropriate to the audience". The latter part of that quote is the most significant; the information needs to be 'targeted' and 'appropriate'. This statement needs clarification, but assuming it means that voters are most open to information which already aligns with their views in some way (as they generally are), then this 'new information' is either unlikely to change peoples minds on 'global warming' or entrench already-existing views. The crux of the issue is that 'information' on global warming comes in many and various forms: scientific research, opinion, spin, and genuine efforts at engagement on a complex and difficult issue all rub shoulders pertaining to 'inform' on global warming. This is often described as the 'politicisation' of the issue (an unfair moniker, in my view, but that's a topic for another day). The assumption of the Yale Report reads as though 'more information' is likely to lead to 'better education' which is often assumed to be a pre-cursor to supporting action on global warming. In fact, the opposite could be true: 'more information' could lead to greater polarisation, and a tendency towards stasis on the issue of global warming.

The Yale Report is the silver lining

So, while the Yale Report throws up some interesting findings, many of them with potentially promising outcomes from a standpoint of global warming activism, it is not all good news. For all the promise of the 'undecided' voters handing the election to the candidate more likely to act on global warming, there is another scenario in which those very voters may flip (or, indeed, flop) away from their current position supporting action to one of obstructivism. And this is before we even start to think about whether or not a second Obama term would actually deliver any tangible action on global warming. The Yale Report, then, is perhaps best seen as a silver lining to an otherwise grey cloud, not the other way around.

No comments: