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Leonardo DiCaprio, President Obama, the United Nations, and the American Public

Leonardo DiCaprio, President Obama, the United Nations, and the American Public

President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations on Tuesday about climate change and said, "...there's one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate." Academy Award nominated actor Leonardo DiCaprio spoke eloquently Tuesday at the same venue about the need for the world to focus directly on climate changes, which he calls not hysteria, but fact. Both the president and DiCaprio were speaking at the UN Climate Summit 2014, whose website proclaims, "Climate change is not a far-off problem. It is happening now and is having very real consequences on people's lives. Climate change is disrupting national economies, costing us dearly today and even more tomorrow."

The fascinating and important aspect of this summit and the associated speeches -- from my perspective as a public opinion scientist -- is the overwhelming degree to which the American public appears not to consider climate change an urgent threat or problem or priority. In many ways over the last decade, the higher the volume about climate change is turned up, the less concerned the American public appears to get.

As one primary example, we just don't see any sign that climate change is top-of-mind when Americans are asked to name the most important problems facing the United States. Check out our most recent September most important problem update, where 1% of all mentions in response to the most important problem question were about the environment in any way.

Additionally, when we ask Americans about the importance of a list of issues directly, the environment is below average in terms of importance. It's important to note that it's above average in terms of how satisfied Americans are with how the problem is being addressed.

When we narrow our focus down to discussions of a list of environmental concerns more specifically, we find that global warming/climate change comes in dead last. Sixty percent of Americans say that pollution of drinking water is something they worry about "a great deal," while only 34% say that about global warming and 35% about climate change. (The words "global warming" and "climate change" appear generally to make little difference in public opinion surveys, although there are some fascinating nuances explored here.)

You can also check this series of reports, which go over in some detail a variety of indicators that underscore the lack of urgency assigned climate change by the average American.

It's very important not to lose sight of the fact that this has become a highly partisan issue. Exactly why that is the case has many answers, but the facts are that in recent years the gap between Republican and Democratic concern about climate change has widened and widened. Republicans are much less likely to view it as a problem than Democrats are. The issue has, thus, become bound up in the general partisan polarization that affects the American political landscape at this time. The more Democrats and liberals take on the cause, the higher the resistance may be from the other side.

Clearly the strategy employed by climate change activists over the past decade to increase the American public's concern about the issue has not worked. It's unlikely that the UN Climate Summit will make much difference in public opinion either, despite DiCaprio and President Obama's best efforts.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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