Right-wing media is cherry-picking data from a recent poll by Siena College and The New York Times to delegitimize the Biden administration’s climate policy ambitions, using the bad-faith argument that Americans do not care about climate change despite ample evidence to the contrary.
The New York Times first mentioned the poll in a July 17 article that described the Biden administration’s failure to pass meaningful climate legislation, largely due to Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) decision to veto a major policy package. (Manchin unexpectedly reversed his stance this week, striking a deal with Democrats to pass key parts of the administration’s domestic agenda as the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $369 billion in transformative climate investments.) The article also claimed that “voters are shelving their climate worries for now,” despite the fact that “evidence that a climate crisis is well underway appears to be everywhere.”
To back up their claim, the authors cited data showing “just 1 percent of voters in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll named climate change as the most important issue facing the country, far behind worries about inflation and the economy. Even among voters under 30, the group thought to be most energized by the issue, that figure was 3 percent.”
Right-wing media and climate deniers immediately latched onto the poll in response to President Joe Biden’s executive actions on climate change earlier this month, the possibility of a climate emergency declaration, and now the Inflation Reduction Act moving toward a vote. They have been using it to frame climate as a non-issue and to insinuate that Biden’s rhetoric around climate change shows the administration is out of touch with voters and instead catering to a small group of extremists. Never mind that Biden did not move forward with the emergency declaration, or that his executive orders have been described as “modest,” falling short of his stated goal of achieving a 50% reduction in toxic pollution emissions by 2030 even if the Inflation Reduction Act passes.
Mainstream broadcast and cable TV news also reported on the poll to suggest that voters don’t support climate policy. Responding to the poll on MSNBC’s Katy Tur Reports, meteorologist Bill Karins said: “Who wants to take a step back? We have to remember, it's because of cheap fuel and fossil fuels is why our lives have become so much easier in the last 100-150 years, and no one wants to give that up. … That’s what makes the problem so very difficult.”
In fact, 69% of U.S. adults favor the United States taking steps to become carbon neutral by 2050 – a policy goal that Biden has already set for the federal government in an executive order last December. But that didn’t stop right-wing media from taking the “1%” line out of context from the new poll results to push their longtime agenda against climate action.
Right-wing media used the poll to make the bad-faith claim that climate policy alienates voters
On the July 20 edition of America's Newsroom, Kellyanne Conway, former counselor to Trump, told Fox News co-hosts Bill Hemmer and Dana Perino that Biden’s executive focus was “mollifying the 1% of America” and that the poll was an indication that voters “don't think that he's connected to them in a way that he is listening to them and hearing their concerns.”
The Fox clip was widely shared, including in a Post Millennial article titled “Biden moves to bypass Congress to enact climate agenda that only 1% of Americans care about.” Numerous right-wing media figures and politicians also regurgitated the “1%” line, including Newsmax contributor and former senior Trump legal adviser Jenna Ellis, fossil fuel-funded Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and climate denier Steve Milloy. Anti-critical race theory crusader James Lindsay also shared the Post Millennial article and called Biden “a tyrant” who “must be impeached and removed from office.”
Other right-wing media picked up on the poll, arguing that Biden is purposely disregarding the concerns of the majority of Americans in order to push a political agenda and that climate change must be a losing issue – even using the poll to question the scientific consensus on climate change.
On Newsmax’s Rob Schmitt Tonight, the host cited the poll to claim, “The disparity between what the government wants and what the people want has never been larger than it is on this issue.” He went on to falsely contend that “for 50 years,” climate scientists’ predictions “have been debunked in spectacular fashion.” Fox News personalities echoed these sentiments.
On the July 24 edition of Fox & Friends Weekend, co-host Pete Hegseth again used the “1%” figure to paint the climate crisis as a problem only affecting a small subset of highly educated liberal media elites: “They're using the blue checkmark woke brigade to attempt to cudgel the White House to declare a crisis based on 1% of Americans who believe it’s their religion, which could change all of our lives, and change it rapidly, if he caves to groups like this.”
On OAN’s Weekly Briefing, host Chanel Rion didn’t hesitate to say the quiet part out loud: “When you think of issues facing our country that need immediate action, does climate change jump to your mind? I doubt it. … Nothing the U.S. does in regards to climate will have any material impact, negating the need for immediate action.”
The network is now using the same rhetoric in response to news of a deal on the Inflation Reduction Act. For example, on the July 28 edition of America’s Newsroom, co-anchor Bill Hemmer cited the Times poll and said that “the American people are not on the same page” as Biden’s “obsession on the climate.”
Right-wing media is misusing one line from the new poll while ignoring years of reliable climate reporting and public opinion
The New York Times has covered the imminent threats of the climate crisis extensively, telling the stories of those most affected and underscoring the need for immediate climate action. However, right-wing media has chosen to contradict countless science-based reports over and over again, instead clinging to one decontextualized sentence from the July 17 story to mislead viewers on how Americans think about climate change and undermine the need for climate action.
Experts and climate advocates had mixed reactions to the poll. Some pointed out that it did not adequately capture how most Americans actually view climate change, or how climate change is an economic issue that has the potential to touch every aspect of American life (and in many ways, is already doing so).
In a Twitter thread, University of California, Santa Barbara, political science professor Matto Mildenberger pointed out that the poll results were expected but misleading due to the framing of the question: “Of course, short-term concerns will be more salient to the public than longer-term threats. … A better question: are politicians rewarded when they address climate change DURING a non-climate crisis? Here, the evidence is unequivocally yes.” Mildenberger provided several studies showing widespread support for specific climate policy goals, and illustrated that combining climate, economic, and social policies is proven to build support for climate action.
Climate writer David Wallace-Wells, who cited the poll in a tweet, wrote that he would interpret the findings “at face value” as “an enormous and unlikely tactical and strategic success for the climate left, which helped push an unprecedentedly ambitious climate program to the center of Biden’s agenda then watched a compromised form of it very nearly pass.” He continued, “if you believe that only 1% of voters see climate as the top political priority, that is an absolutely astonishing (if insufficient) political success story.”
Other advocates suggested that the poll was a sign that a strategic shift in climate communications is needed. Project Drawdown executive director Jonathan Foley said in a tweet thread: “It just says that the doom/gloom messaging isn’t working very well, and climate won’t top peoples’ worries about the economy, health, and community. Nor should it. … The old approach of scaring people with climate doomsday messaging to motivate political action in D.C. simply isn't working. It hasn't for 30 years.”
Whether it’s because of phrasing or because of the climate movement’s strategy, it’s clear that one poll doesn’t invalidate the very real ways that Americans, particularly low-income communities and communities of color, are suffering from the impacts of pollution and climate breakdown every single day.
The claim that no one cares about climate change is inconsistent with polls showing that, in fact, 65% percent of Americans are worried about global warming and 53% percent of U.S. adults report personally having felt the effects of climate change. Even if a poll found that 99% percent of voters thought climate change was the most important problem facing the country, right-wing media still would not advocate for climate change solutions.
Right-wing networks like Fox News constantly spew climate disinformation meant to deliberately mislead viewers about the severity of climate change impacts and the effectiveness of existing solutions. When it seemed as though public opinion was shifting in favor of climate action, during the global climate strikes in 2019 or when Biden won the presidency with a climate platform, these same conservative outlets constantly used fossil fuel industry talking points and downplayed the severity of the climate crisis.
Meanwhile, a recent analysis found that the oil and gas industry has delivered $2.8 billion a day in pure profit for the last 50 years while it poured money into misinformation campaigns to cast doubt on climate change and undermine the case for climate action. Social media platforms are failing to crack down on this type of content even as it’s reaching millions of voters every day, emphasizing the need for major media outlets to accurately contextualize data in their climate coverage so that audiences and lawmakers can get a clearer picture of how voters really want to address this multifaceted crisis.