This post includes climate and environment headlines, data points, and key takeaways from recent public polls - including polling about people’s willingness to talk about climate change, new polling on the East Palestine disaster, and a new industry-funded poll in New York State about the state’s Climate Act and residential gas.
- ecoAmerica - Many Americans aren’t comfortable talking about climate change, even with their friends and family (Article, Report, Topline)
- Premise - Americans blame Norfolk Southern more than the government for the East Palestine train derailment, but don’t trust government statements about the safety of air and water in the area (Crosstabs)
- [NY] New Yorkers for Affordable Energy + Siena College - Polling commissioned by oil and gas companies shows that New Yorkers support climate action and want to phase out residential gas (Inside Climate News Article, Crosstabs)
- Climate concern needs to be “normalized.” Recent polling by ecoAmerica finds that many Americans aren’t comfortable talking about climate change, even with their own friends and family. Previous polling has shown that Americans systematically underestimate how much those around them are concerned about climate change, and it’s therefore important for advocates to demonstrate to people that they aren’t alone in being worried about the issue. The more people are willing to have conversations with those around them about climate change, the more they’ll realize that their peers share their concerns.
- East Palestine is a salient example of corporate polluters choosing profits over people. Consistent with polling from last week, new national polling by Premise finds that Americans - including partisans on both sides of the political divide - are more inclined to blame Norfolk Southern for the East Palestine train derailment than they are to blame political or government actors. Polls show that uniting people around a common “villain” such as oil and gas companies is effective at spurring more bipartisan agreement on environmental issues, and the East Palestine incident is a highly salient example for advocates to point to in order to remind people that we’re all on the same side against corporate polluters that choose profits over people.
- Health messaging effectively counters our opponents’ cost messaging about household energy. An industry-funded poll about residential gas in New York State finds that New Yorkers widely believe that heat pumps are unaffordable, but still overwhelmingly agree that the health benefits of retrofitting buildings “will outweigh the cost.” Advocates should engage in debates about costs in order to educate the public about the affordability of clean energy, while also leaning into health-focused messaging that reinforces people’s positive beliefs about the health benefits of shifting to clean energy.
GOOD DATA POINTS TO HIGHLIGHT
- [Issue Priority] More Americans name climate change and the environment as the single “most important issue” to them than any other issue aside from inflation/prices and health care [The Economist + YouGov]
- [New York State] 74% of New Yorkers support the state “aggressively moving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” [New Yorkers for Affordable Energy + Siena College]
- [New York State] 65% of New Yorkers support the goal of having 1 to 2 million New York homes heated with electric heat pumps rather than natural gas or oil-fueled furnaces by 2030 [New Yorkers for Affordable Energy + Siena College]
- [New York State] 65% of New Yorkers support the goal of electrifying 85% of New York homes and commercial buildings with electric heat pumps by 2050 [New Yorkers for Affordable Energy + Siena College]
ecoAmerica polling from earlier this year finds that roughly two-thirds of Americans are comfortable talking about climate change with their family (67%) and friends (64%), while relatively few are comfortable talking about the issue with co-workers (29%), neighbors (27%), or elected officials (23%).
This leaves about one-third of the country who aren’t comfortable talking about climate change even with their own friends and family.
Easing social discomfort around the issue should be a priority for advocates, as ecoAmerica’s accompanying article points out:
“Many climate activists have been working for years to transform climate change into a kitchen-table issue… These conversations are important — engaging in climate conversations can create a positive feedback loop, resulting in further conversation. Talking about climate change can also help reassure people around you that they are not alone in their climate concern, as recent research shows.”
ecoAmerica’s January poll also found that Americans systematically underestimate how much others around them care about climate change: while 72% say that they are concerned about climate change (including 42% who are “very concerned” about the issue), only about half of Americans (52%) believe that people around them are concerned about it.
The assumption that people around you don’t share your climate concerns creates an obvious barrier to discussing the issue, and it’s an unfortunate Catch-22 scenario: if someone is unwilling to discuss climate change with their peers because they assume their peers don’t care about climate change, they’ll never learn that their peers actually do care about the issue.
This is why advocates need to step in and provide a nudge. For example, by driving up social media engagement about climate change and by shaping news coverage to reflect the public’s concern about the issue, we can signal to people that those around them share their climate concerns.
Establishing climate concern as a social norm is especially important in conservative circles, where ecoAmerica finds the most discomfort around the issue: Republicans are 14 points less likely than Democrats to say that they’re comfortable talking about climate change with their family (60%, compared to 74% of Democrats) and 12 points less likely than Democrats to say that they’re comfortable discussing the issue with their friends (56%, compared to 68% of Democrats).
Americans blame Norfolk Southern more than the government for the East Palestine train derailment, but don’t trust government statements about the safety of air and water in the area (Crosstabs)
Polls released last week showed that Americans view East Palestine as a failure at the corporate level, and this new polling by Premise provides further evidence that the public holds Norfolk Southern accountable.
When asked to choose who they “blame most” for the train derailment, respondents are twice as likely to put blame on Norfolk Southern than any other person or group:
- Norfolk Southern, the rail operator - 29%
- The Trump administration rollback of rail regulations - 13%
- The Biden administration and Transportation Department - 12%
- The Ohio state government - 6%
- Unsure - 40%
While some partisans are inclined to place blame on their political adversaries, self-identified Democrats are still more likely to blame Norfolk Southern (30%) than the Trump administration (20%) and self-identified Republicans are more likely to blame Norfolk Southern (32%) than the Biden administration (22%).
Polling on the East Palestine derailment reinforces that the best communications tactic to move environmental issues above the political fray is to frame them as a conflict between people and polluters. By placing regular Americans of all backgrounds on the same side of the conflict, it’s possible to get people to temporarily put aside their partisan differences and focus on a common villain: corporate polluters.
Polls consistently show that measures to hold corporate polluters accountable draw overwhelming support, and oil and gas companies are deeply unpopular.
The Premise poll additionally finds that, while Americans don’t blame the government for the train derailment, they also don’t trust the government’s response to the disaster. By a six-to-one margin, Americans say they don’t believe “government regulators that say the air and drinking water in East Palestine, Ohio is safe” (12% yes / 72% no).
Partisans are aligned on this point as well, with large majorities of Democrats (68%), independents (72%), and Republicans (78%) all doubting government regulators’ assessments of air and water safety in East Palestine.
[NY] New Yorkers for Affordable Energy + Siena College
This New York State poll commissioned by New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, a coalition that largely consists of fossil fuel interests, awkwardly finds that New York State residents overwhelmingly want to transition away from fossil fuels.
The poll was seemingly intended to demonstrate that New Yorkers want to keep gas in the state’s energy mix as New York moves to implement its 2019 Climate Act. However, the poll instead finds that most New Yorkers welcome the phaseout of gas in homes and buildings:
- By a 57%-39% margin, New Yorkers support “banning natural gas furnaces and appliances in new buildings starting in 2025”
- By a 56%-40% margin, New Yorkers support “a prohibition on replacement of natural gas appliances used for home heating, cooking, water heating, and clothes drying in existing homes beginning in 2030”
The majority support for these proposals is even more notable because the poll questions only present the idea of a “ban” on gas appliances, without indicating what will replace these appliances. When it’s clarified that heat pumps are the alternative, proposals to phase out gas are even more popular:
- 65% of New Yorkers support having 1 to 2 million of New York’s homes heated with electric heat pumps rather than natural gas or oil-fueled furnaces by 2030
- 65% of New Yorkers support electrifying 85% of New York homes and commercial buildings with electric heat pumps by 2050
- 61% of New Yorkers support retrofitting more than 250,000 homes and thousands of commercial buildings each year, starting in 2030, to use electric heat pumps for their primary heating, cooling, and hot water system
The poll finds overwhelming support for the implementation of the Climate Act more broadly, with 74% of voters saying that they support the state “aggressively moving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” in order to reach the target dates set out in the Climate Act.
Additionally, roughly three-quarters (74%) say they are willing to personally change aspects of the way they live - including things like how they heat their home, cook their food, and the kind of car they drive - in order to help New York reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
A series of statements about natural gas in the poll reveal the fossil fuel industry’s communications strategy for pushing back against the Climate Act, focusing on costs and arguing for an “all-of-the-above” energy approach. Here the funders of the poll are able to generate the kinds of data points they wanted, and it’s important for advocates to recognize the persuasive power of our opponents’ “all-of-the-above” energy messaging and the credulity of arguments that the transition to clean energy will be too costly for everyday people:
- 79% of New Yorkers agree with a statement that “New York should create an energy mix that uses both natural gas and low or no carbon fuels”
- 79% of New Yorkers agree with a statement that “for most New Yorkers, electrifying their home by replacing their current system with an electric heat pump is too costly”
- 73% of New Yorkers agree with a statement that “natural gas is a cleaner fossil fuel which we should continue to use to heat our homes and water as we gradually transition to zero carbon emissions”
We definitely need more research on how to combat the “all-of-the-above energy” talking point and notions that gas is a “cleaner fossil fuel,” but the poll shows that health messaging is an effective way to counter our opponents’ attacks on costs in the clean energy debate. By a greater than two-to-one margin (62% agree / 29% disagree), New Yorkers agree with the following statement: “While retrofitting New York’s buildings is costly, the benefit in terms of New Yorkers’ long term health will outweigh the cost of retrofitting.”
This isn’t to say that advocates should ignore or pivot away from debates on clean energy costs; if claims about the unaffordability of clean energy are left unchecked then people are inclined to believe them, as this poll shows. Rather, it’s important to engage in the debate on costs and also lean into arguments about public health. Research shows that a two-pronged narrative strategy - educating the public about the affordability of clean energy and reinforcing the positive beliefs people already have about the health benefits of clean energy - is the most effective way to counter opposition messaging about the costs of the clean energy transition.
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