Climate Change Moving Down Americans’ Foreign Policy Priority List

By Patrick Goodenough | December 5, 2013 | 1:22 AM EST

Then-Senator John Kerry delivers a speech during a U.N. Climate Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2009. (AP Photo)

( – The number of Americans who think “dealing with global climate change” should be a top U.S. foreign policy goal continues to fall in a poll that has tracked the issue since the 1990s, and five years under an administration more inclined to make it an issue does not appear to have stemmed the slide.

The latest Pew Research Center poll surveying Americans’ foreign policy goals also found a significant partisan difference when it comes to the importance of prioritizing climate change.

Out of 11 foreign policy goals featured in the poll released Wednesday, climate change ranks fourth from the bottom, with 37 percent of respondents saying it should be a top priority. That has dropped slowly but steadily from 50 percent in 1997, to 44 in 2001, 43 in 2005 and 40 in 2009.

Of the other goals, “protecting U.S. from terrorist attacks” and “protecting U.S. jobs” get the most support, at 83 and 81 percent respectively, while “promoting democracy in other nations” gets the least, at 18 percent.

Unlike the climate change goal’s downward movement, most of the others have risen and fallen in importance at various times over the years of polling, although “reducing dependence on imported energy” has dropped since 2005 (from 67 to 61 percent) and “promoting democracy in other nations,” after climbing from 1997 to 2001 (from 22 to 29 percent), has dropped steadily ever since.

The other goals featured are “preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction” (73 percent in 2013) “combating international drug trafficking” (57 percent), “reducing illegal immigration” (48 percent), “strengthening the United Nations” (37 percent), “promoting and defending human rights in other countries” (33 percent) and “helping improve living standards in developing nations” (23 percent).

Pew also tracked the differences between Republicans’ and Democrats’ views on the 11 foreign policy goals, and found that the widest gap – a difference of 41 points – applies to climate change: Fifty-seven percent of Democrats, and only 16 percent of Republicans, believe it should be a U.S. foreign policy priority.

The next biggest partisan gaps relate to strengthening the U.N. (50 percent Democrats vs. 25 percent Republicans) and illegal immigration (62 percent Republicans vs. 38 percent Democrats).

An earlier Pew poll found that Republicans associated with the tea party account for most of the skepticism about global warming: Just 25 percent of tea party Republicans agreed there was “solid evidence the earth is warming” compared to 61 percent of non-tea party Republicans. Eighty-four percent of Democrats shared that belief.

But even among the non-tea party Republican respondents in that survey, only 32 percent said human activity was to blame, while 24 percent attributed warming to “natural patterns.”

Overall, fewer than half of the respondents of all political persuasions (44 percent) believed human activity is to blame.

The continuing downward trend in prioritizing climate change in foreign policy comes despite the fact that President Obama has, in the words of Secretary of State John Kerry, placed the issue “back on the front burner where it belongs.”

Attributing climate change to human activity is a view strongly held by senior administration officials. Kerry himself, who as a senator was an outspoken advocate, has prioritized the issue of human-induced global warming as America’s top diplomat. He recently declared himself “amazed” that some Americans do not recognize the urgency of climate change “for life itself on the planet as we know it.”

His predecessor at the State Department, Hillary Clinton, said in May 2011, “there is no doubt, except among those who are into denying the facts before their eyes, that climate change is occurring, and it is contributed to by human actions at every level.”

In its most recent report, released last September, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that global warming is “unequivocal” and that it is “extremely likely” that human activity has been the main cause.

That was stronger language than appeared in the IPCC’s previous report, in 2007, which asserted that global warming was “very likely” man-made.

A year ago, a peer-reviewed journal published the results of a survey of more than 1,000 professional engineers’ and geoscientists’ views on climate change, and found that only 36 percent fitted into a group that “express[ed] the strong belief that climate change is happening, that it is not a normal cycle of nature, and humans are the main or central cause.”

“They are the only group to see the scientific debate as mostly settled and the IPCC modeling to be accurate,” the survey found.

The rest of the respondents, with slight variations, expressed varying degrees of skepticism about the causes of climate change, the extent of risk it poses, and the accuracy of IPCC modeling.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow