May 13, 2015 | By Craig Kafura, Dina Smeltz

Americans’ Views on Key Global Issues of Climate, Energy, and the Global Economy

The Chicago Forum on Global Cities, hosted by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Financial Times, will convene in Chicago from May 27 to 29, 2015. It brings together global city leaders of the four pillars vital to urban life—business, education, arts and culture, civics—for a multidisciplinary discussion on how they can collaborate to make their cities more economically vital, socially inclusive, and environmentally livable.
But what does the American public think about some of these key issues? For details on how Americans view climate, energy, and the global economy, we turn to data from the long-running Chicago Council Surveys. 

Climate Change
As growing hubs for people, commerce, industry, and transportation, global cities are leading contributors to stresses on the environment. According to UN Habitat, cities cover less than 2 percent of the earth’s surface but produce 60 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and consume 78 percent of the world’s energy. Half of Americans (50%) say that the US government is not doing enough to deal with the problem of climate change nationally. Three in ten (31%) say the government is doing about the right amount, while two in ten (19%) say it is doing too much.

Figure 1 - Climate Change

Despite this, the public overall does not see climate change as a critical threat to US vital interests. Four in ten (38%) say it is important, but not critical, while 35 percent say it is a critical threat. An additional 27 percent say it is not an important threat. This puts the threat of climate change 16th of the 20 threats asked about in the Chicago Council 2014 Survey.

Americans are in favor of international action to combat climate change. Seven in ten Americans (71%) support the US participating in a new international treaty to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Support is even higher among those who say that the government is not doing enough to deal with climate change—92 percent of this group believes that the US should participate. Conversely, 80 percent of people who say the government is doing too much oppose US participation in the treaty.

Figure 2 - Climate Treaty

Globalization and the Global Economy 

The forum will discuss the ways in which the world’s most powerful cities serve as economic engines of the twenty-first century and how global cities are positioned as hubs of trade and commerce. Meanwhile, Chicago Council public opinion data reveals how Americans view globalization and the global economy more broadly.
Americans believe economic strength (77%) is more important than military strength (23%) to a nation’s power and influence in the world, and seven in ten (72%, up 5 points since 2012) say that signing free trade agreements is an effective means to achieve foreign policy objectives.
Americans also express broad support for globalization and free trade. As the US economy continues to recover from the largest global economic collapse since the 1930s, public views on globalization have returned to 2004 levels. Two out of three Americans say that globalization is mostly a good thing (65% vs. 34% bad thing), the highest recorded percentage to feel this way since the question was first asked in 1998.

Figure 3 - Globalization
 Asked about trade agreements specifically, half the public (50%) favors agreements to lower trade barriers provided the government has programs to help workers who lose their jobs. Another 14 percent favor trade agreements but oppose the governments’ programs to help workers who lose their jobs. One in three (31%) opposes agreements to lower trade barriers regardless of programs to help the unemployed, the lowest proportion yet. Since this question was first asked in 2004, opinion has been quite stable, with a plurality of Americans (between 43% and 50%) supporting trade agreements with a provision for the unemployed. 

This general support for trade agreements is reflected in more specific situations. Majorities of Americans support both of the two far-reaching trade agreements that the United States is currently pursuing. Six in ten Americans support the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe (62%, 29% oppose). A similar proportion support the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) being negotiated among a dozen Pacific Rim countries (63%, 31% oppose). Public support for these agreements is impressive given that the text of these agreements has been neither completed nor publicized. This suggests that public backing of these agreements is based on broad support for the idea of trade agreements rather than knowledge of the specifics.

Figure 4 - Trade Deals

Finally, the Chicago Forum on Global Cities will discuss how many of the world’s global cities were designed centuries ago and need to adapt their antiquated infrastructure to meet twenty-first century needs. One of their greatest challenges will be supplying increased energy options with fewer resources. So what do Americans think about energy sources and the US reliance on foreign supplies?
Americans have long considered securing adequate supplies of energy a top goal for US foreign policy. In the 2014 Chicago Council Survey, two-thirds of Americans (66%) deem it a very important goal, second only to protecting the jobs of American workers. Going back decades to the first Chicago Council Survey in 1974, majorities have consistently deemed securing energy supplies a very important goal. In addition, three in four (74%) say that reducing US dependence on foreign oil is a very important goal. 

Figure 5 - Energy Goals

Reflecting these priorities, the American public favors a wide variety of measures to reduce US dependence on foreign energy sources. The most popular of the proposals presented in the 2014 Chicago Council Survey are maintaining existing nuclear power plants to reduce reliance on oil and coal (76%) and increasing tax incentives to encourage the development and use of alternative energy sources, such as solar or wind power (73%). Seven in ten (69%) favor requiring auto-makers to increase fuel efficiency, even if this means the price of cars would go up (69%). And two in three Americans (65%) support opening up land owned by the federal government for oil exploration.
Smaller majorities support increasing the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and natural gas from underground rock formations (56%) and increasing the mining and use of coal for generating electricity (55%). The sole proposal in the 2014 Chicago Council Survey that Americans oppose is raising taxes on fuels such as coal and oil to encourage individuals and businesses to use less (34% favor, 63% oppose), a cost they would have to bear personally.

Figure 6 - Energy Policy

Though the Chicago Council Surveys don’t ask specifically about global cities, these issues – climate change, international trade, energy policy – have critical impacts on cities, both around the world and here in the United States. And with national governments controlling the key levers of power to resolve many of these critical issues, public opinion plays a critical role in shaping public policy. With urban leaders looking to solve these global challenges, they will also need to respond to the public’s views.



The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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