you have an idea about what an environmentalist is and it might not be the
same idea that I have, which may not be the same idea as somebody else
has” (Tesch and Kempton, 2004, p. 77).
In that same vein, the issue is not only what people think, but what
their leaders or elected representatives think they think. There is a notable
disparity between the public’s views and what leaders and political leaders
expect those answers to be. Interestingly, not only did the vast majority of
Democratic congressional staffers (94 percent) support the Kyoto Protocol,
but so too did the majority of Bush administration officials (68 percent).
Only Republican staffers, 21 percent of whom supported the Kyoto Proto-
col, were largely hostile (CCFR, 2004). Nevertheless, regardless of their per-
sonal views, most leaders presumed that the public was opposed to the
agreement even though their overall level of support (71 percent) was almost
identical to that expressed by the political leaders surveyed. Still, many
more Democratic staffers (45 percent) and Bush administration officials (41
percent) correctly estimated at least the direction of support compared to
Republican staffers (15 percent). The greater recognition of the public
support of the Kyoto Protocol by Bush administration officials may help
explain their personal backing for the treaty in spite of the administration’s
continued official opposition.
Shellenberger and Nordhaus argue that “the truth is that for the vast
majority of Americans, the environment never makes it into their top ten
list of things to worry about. Protecting the environment is indeed supported
by a large majority—it’s just not supported very strongly. Once you under-
stand this, it’s much easier to understand why it’s been so easy for antienvi-
ronmental interests to gut 30 years of environmental protections”
(Shellenberger and Nordhaus, 2004, p. 11). Using their logic, if environmen-
tal concerns “never make it into their top ten,” one might ask why the envi-
ronment should be a political priority and why politicians should respond to
such a low priority with substantial resources and aggressive regulation. The
reality is that there has been longstanding bipartisan support for environ-
mental regulation and it is strong bipartisan support that led to the passage
of strong environmental legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean
Water Act. To imagine that regulation of greenhouse gases can be accom-
plished without enlisting moderates and conservatives defies history and
more importantly ignores current trends in public opinion.
Conclusion
Simply because opinions may be influenced by cognitive bias, misinforma-
tion, or ignorance does not mean they are not legitimate. Every election and
referendum is contested with imperfect information. Many more decisions,
made on a daily basis by elected leaders and appointed regulators, are taken
without explicit recourse to public opinion.
From Public Understanding to Public Policy 213

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