A new poll by ABC News and the Washington Post suggests that most Americans, by a two-to-one margin (59% to 28%), oppose President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. The results are interesting, though they may not tell us what the news organizations claim.
As is the pollster’s habit when polling on public policy issues, no attempt was made to discern what respondents actually know before they were informed by the poll questions themselves. Thus, in this case, ABC/WP did not ask if respondents knew about either the Paris accord or Trump’s withdrawal from it.
Instead, the question asked: “Do you support or oppose Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the main international agreement that tries to address climate change? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?”
Note two things: 1) the question informs respondents that Trump has withdrawn from the agreement, something many respondents may not have known, and 2) the question does not even mention the Paris accord directly. Instead, it asks about a more general feeling: Whether respondents want the U.S. to be part of some international agreement to address climate change.
The net consequence is that the results from this question tell us very little about the public’s reaction specifically to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord. The results do indicate, however, that most people are at least sympathetic to the notion that something needs to be done about climate change.
What People Know and Don’t Know
The ABC/WP question was supposedly designed to find out how many people supported and how many opposed the president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris accord. Presumably, the question should also help discover how many people don’t know anything about the matter. After all, people who are unaware of the president’s decision are in no position to either support or oppose it.
Instead, ABC/WP informed respondents of the decision while asking them what their opinion was about it. The problem is that not all Americans have been given this information in the way that the poll’s respondents have. Thus, the respondents – now all of them informed – no longer represent the larger American population, which includes many adults who are completely unaware of the issue.
How many Americans don’t know about Trump’s action? The poll didn’t ask, and thus we don’t know. But as the recent iMediaEthics poll on Trump’s tax returns revealed, large numbers of Americans are inattentive to even some of the most widely covered events. That poll showed that about half the public is unaware that Trump has not released his tax returns – despite other polls supposedly showing large majorities of Americans critical of him for not doing so. Those other polls, like the current ABC/WP poll, did not ask respondents if they knew whether Trump had released his tax returns, but simply told them he had not and then asked for respondents’ opinion.
By informing respondents, polls provide a distorted view of public opinion – not a reflection of what people are actually thinking, but an illusion of what people might be thinking if everyone were fully informed.
The Paris Accord
For some inexplicable reason, the ABC/WP poll did not mention the Paris accord by name. Instead, the poll referred to it as “the main international agreement that tries to address climate change.”
Such an oblique reference to the Paris accord no doubt worked for some of the most well-informed respondents, but for many other respondents, the reference most likely simply raised the more general question of “climate change.”
Many polls suggest the public is generally in agreement that anthropogenic climate change is occurring. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that most Americans support the specific efforts called for in the Paris accord.
As Gallup’s Frank Newport notes, “the average American is certainly not in a position to be able to carefully evaluate claims about the future impact of the accord on jobs, the budget, the climate and so forth.” Instead, people are most likely to take their cues from political leaders they trust and who express views about the Paris accord.
Thus, to get a realistic view of what Americans think specifically about the Paris accord, the poll must at the very least refer to the agreement by name. That the poll neglects to do so invalidates any claim that ABC and the Post make that their poll reflects what people think about Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord.
What the Poll Shows
One good feature of the poll is that it asks how strongly people feel about the climate change issue. By measuring intensity, pollsters can get a better insight into how serious we should treat the results. People who don’t feel strongly about an issue tend not to care one way or another about it, despite offering a top-of-mind opinion.
And in this case, the ABC/WP poll report showed 64% of the public with strong views about “Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the main international agreement that tries to address climate change.” Forty-six percent strongly opposed, 18% strongly supported the decision.
From these results we can infer that the attentive public for climate change is relatively large – almost two-thirds of the public feeling intensely about the issue. And by much greater than a two-to-one margin, the attentive public is generally in favor of addressing climate change rather than ignoring it.
As for what the public thinks specifically about the Paris accord and Trump’s decision to withdraw from that accord – we need some other poll to address that issue directly.