The Framing of Kyoto vs. Mandatory Caps on Emissions

Something to think about...Kyoto was strategically framed by conservatives as an unfair economic burden on the U.S. , deflating public support across polls. Yet according to Gallup trends and other poll indicators, Americans have always supported international agreements on climate in general and mandatory caps on CO2 emissions specifically. It's a classic example of how framing can alter public preferences on a particular agreement or legislative bill that turns on a principle that the public would otherwise support.

Below the fold I detail what the available poll data suggests about how framing shaped public preferences on Kyoto. The passage is taken from a journal article I have forthcoming (e-mail me for a copy).

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Besides domestic policy measures to counter global warming, the public has been asked across surveys their views on the longstanding efforts to negotiate international agreements on greenhouse gas emissions. As early as 1990, eight out of ten Americans believed that the U.S. should take the lead internationally in preventing the greenhouse effect. However, more than ten years later, when asked specifically to evaluate George W. Bush's decision to forego participation in the Kyoto climate treaty, given earlier findings relative to low levels of attention and knowledge about the agreement, it is not surprising that several surveys show that many citizens did not hold an opinion on the matter. Other surveys provide evidence that the strategic framing of the Kyoto treaty and its possible impacts can shape public preferences.

For example, in surveys conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR), PIPA, and Gallup between 2002 and 2005, the tentative nature of public opinion on Kyoto is revealed when considering response category effects. In each of the surveys, respondents were asked if they believed the U.S. should participate in the Kyoto agreement on global warming. In the CCFR survey from 2002, and the PIPA surveys from 2004 and 2005, 64%, 65%, and 73% support participation (Table 28). Yet consider two Gallup surveys that differ slightly in question wording, in both polls only 42% of Americans answer that the US should abide by the treaty, while 36% and 35% in the two surveys volunteered that they were "unsure" or had "no opinion" (Table 29).

Question wording effects are apparent across other surveys. In two Gallup questions from April and June 2001, Bush's interpretation that the Kyoto treaty would hurt the economy while demanding too little of developing countries was presented with no counter argument. In these polls, 41% and 40% said they approved of Bush's decision to withdraw, while 48% disapproved. In contrast, when Pew asked about the decision in April and August 2001; and when Gallup queried respondents in a separate survey conducted in July 2001, no reason for the decision to withdraw from Kyoto was given. In these cases, absent a specified justification, approval of Bush's decision rested at only 25%, 29%, and 32% respectively, with disapproval at 47%, 44%, and 51%. Gallup asked about the decision to withdraw from Kyoto again in 2005, yet this time they labeled the event a "United States' decision" rather than a Bush decision, and offered "unsure" as a response category. In reply to this alternative question wording, 59% answered "unsure" with only 20% approval and 21% disapproval (Table 30).

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I'd be interested to hear how you contrast this with the new study I came across last week, blogged about here, that actually presented respondents with options and costs.

I think the problem with Kyoto is that those of us who want action on climate change have not talked about the pros and cons in terms of equity, which is what policy debates ultimately boil down to. So by saying "Kyoto isn't fair", the conservatives got an upper hand. EcoEquity has a few new reports that begin to analyze post-Kyoto proposals from an equity perspective that may provide a better frame of reference that will also make the climate debate more accessible. But I still think we need to talk more specifically, about on-the-ground choices.

This sounds a lot like the recent survey which found that support for an unnamed Democrat was a lot higher than support for any specific candidate.