Survey: Americans Divided on Degree of Threat of Climate Change but Support International Treaty to Address Its Effects

November 30, 2015
As world leaders meet in Paris to negotiate an international climate change agreement, public opinion survey data from The Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows that while Democrats and Republicans are at opposite ends of the spectrum in prioritizing climate change, the public since 2002 has consistently indicated support for an international treaty to address the problem.
 
American Views on Threat of Climate Change:
  • Roughly four in ten Americans (37 percent, up eight percentage points from 2010) say that climate change is a serious and pressing problem and that we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs.
  • A similar proportion (36 percent, down from 42 percent in 2010) says that the problem of climate change should be addressed but that its effects will be gradual, so we can deal with the problem gradually by taking steps that are low in cost.
  • One in four (24 percent, similar to 26 percent in 2010) continue to say that until we are sure that climate change is really a problem, we should not take any steps that would have economic costs.
     
Partisan Divides:
Of all the foreign policy issues addressed in the 2015 Chicago Council Survey, none is more divisive among the public than the issue of climate change.
  • Almost five times as many Democrats (56 percent) as Republicans (12 percent) believe that climate change is a serious and pressing problem requiring action now.
  • Most Republicans remain split over whether the problem of climate change should be dealt with gradually (43 percent) or whether climate change is really a problem (44 percent) – the latter a position only 13 percent of Democrats share.
  • For the first time, a majority of Democrats (56 percent) say that climate change requires immediate action (up from 49 percent in 2010), and Democrats are three times more likely than Republicans to say that climate change is a critical threat.
  • Independents have seen an even bigger shift: Today, four in ten (40 percent) support taking steps on climate now, up from only 23 percent in 2010.
  • When asked about a series of possible threats to U.S. interests and U.S. foreign policy goals, 58 percent of Democrats see climate change as a critical threat, while 38 percent of Independents and just 17 percent of Republicans agree. Similarly, 58 percent of Democrats say that limiting climate change is a very important goal, while 36 percent of Independents and 17 percent of Republicans agree.
     
Support for an International Treaty:
  • Majorities across the political spectrum supported a “new international treaty to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions” in Chicago Council Surveys from 2008-2014 and before that, from 2002-2006, for the “Kyoto Agreement to reduce global warming.
     
Support for an International Treaty on Climate Change

About the Chicago Council Survey
The analysis in this report is based on data from the 2015 Chicago Council Survey of the American public on foreign policy. The 2015 Chicago Council Survey was conducted by GfK Custom Research using their large-scale, probability-based nationwide online research KnowledgePanel between May 25 and June 17, 2015, among a national sample of 2,034 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The margin of error ranges from ± 2.2 to ± 3.1 percentage points depending on the specific question, with higher margins of error for partisan subgroups.
 
The 2015 Chicago Council Survey is made possible by the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Korea Foundation, the United States-Japan Foundation and the personal support of Lester Crown and the Crown family.