Poll: Political change seen as key to addressing the climate crisis

Editor Adam Abadi polled Vassar students on their views on climate change.

Adam Abadi
April 5, 2020
Campus & Culture

When talking to Vassar students about the present state of the world, perhaps no other topic inspires a greater sense of fear and urgency than society’s failure to sufficiently respond to Earth’s rapidly warming climate. The Insider has conducted a survey to understand how Vassar students conceptualize the climate crisis, how they feel about proposed policy solutions, and how they are turning their concerns into action. We hope the results will be useful to researchers, activists, or anyone else who cares about addressing the climate crisis.

Methodology and sample

The Vassar Insider circulated a Google Forms survey via social media and email between February 21 and March 5. We understand that students who have stronger opinions on the climate crisis were much more likely to choose to take the survey, so it is not quite a statistically random sample of the Vassar student population. This is noticeable in the breakdown of respondents’ majors, where Environmental Studies and STS majors are somewhat overrepresented. Regardless, the survey’s results should be valuable for anyone seeking to understand the perspectives of Vassar students on the climate crisis. The full results are linked at the bottom of this article. We received N=164 respondents.

Key Findings

Overall, respondents were very concerned about the climate crisis and generally wanted Vassar to do more to address it. Unsurprisingly, the survey’s results indicate that Vassar students generally see political action and public policy as central to addressing the climate crisis. 

On a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest, 70% of respondents rated their concern about the climate crisis as a 5, and only 9% rated their concern as a 3 or less.

Vassar students have a wide range of reasons for caring about the climate crisis, but are particularly concerned about its ecological consequences and implications for environmental justice.

Respondents were instructed to pick their top three concerns about the climate crisis from a list of nine options. Seven of the nine options were chosen by at least 20% of respondents, indicating that Vassar students have a diverse array of motivations for caring about the climate. The most common concerns were the climate crisis’s “disproportionate impact on marginalized populations” and “destruction of natural ecosystems and reduction in biodiversity”, both of which were selected by over 60% of respondents. 

Vassar students seem to prefer the term “Climate Crisis” over “Climate Change” or “Global Warming”. The survey itself was titled “Vassar Insider Survey on the Global Climate Crisis”, which could have skewed the results of this question to some extent. Still, the overwhelming popularity of the term “Climate Crisis” indicates the sense of urgency that Vassar students feel about this issue.

Roughly two-thirds of respondents had participated in some form of climate-related activism, of which the majority had participated in a climate rally, march, or sit-in. Smaller amounts of respondents were involved with climate-related volunteer work, jobs, or student organizations. 

85% of respondents believe that Vassar should offer more classes related to the climate crisis. At the same time, nearly 80% of respondents report they know “a little” about or have never heard of the Grand Challenges initiative, which includes Vassar’s attempt to incorporate the climate crisis into more classes’ curriculums.

Unsurprisingly, Vassar students overwhelmingly hold corporations and governments responsible for the climate crisis. Most respondents viewed consumers as less responsible for the Earth’s changing climate. 

This view that political and economic institutions are most responsible for the climate crisis was reflected elsewhere in the survey.

For example, 55% of respondents believe that “voting for politicians who take the climate crisis seriously” is “extremely” effective at reducing one’s carbon footprint. In contrast, none of the other personal actions we asked about were viewed as “extremely” effective at reducing one’s effect on the climate by any more than a third of respondents. 

Most respondents correctly indicated that flying or driving less, reducing meat/dairy/egg consumption, and having fewer children are fairly effective at reducing one’s carbon footprint. Most respondents also correctly identified recycling as relatively ineffective at reducing one’s carbon emissions.

The emphasis on fighting the climate crisis through political action was also reflected by respondents’ self-reported personal behavior.

When presented with a list of the personal decisions most relevant to carbon emissions reduction, respondents were, by far, most likely to indicate that the climate crisis affects their choice to vote in elections. About three-quarters of respondents reported that fighting the climate crisis affects their decision on whether to vote to a “great” or “very great” extent. For all other personal choices we asked about, fewer than half of respondents said that fighting the climate crisis influenced their own decisions to a “great” or “very great” extent.

This indicates that the climate crisis might be a powerful motivator for students’ civic participation, and that many students understand the importance of systemic change in fighting the climate crisis but might be less focused on reducing their own carbon footprints.

We also asked respondents to rate the effectiveness of several public policy proposals at reducing carbon emissions. Majorities of respondents believe that a Green New Deal, a carbon tax, renewable energy subsidies, or nationwide phase-out of coal power would be “extremely” or “greatly” effective. However, respondents did not view a nationwide expansion of nuclear power as nearly as helpful, with a plurality rating it as “moderately” effective and only 22% rating it as “extremely” or “greatly” effective. 

Respondents generally supported potential actions that Vassar could take to further address the climate crisis. Nearly nine out of ten would support some form of “Meatless Mondays” program on campus, although much of that support would be contingent upon Vassar significantly expanding vegetarian/vegan options on campus that day. Two-thirds would support a curricular requirement for all Vassar students to take at least one class related to the climate crisis.

Finally, respondents were asked an open-ended question about what Vassar’s administration should do to reduce carbon emissions. The most common responses were that Vassar should divest from fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy—such as solar panels—on campus. 

The survey’s full results are here

Adam Abadi

Adam (’22) is an economics major from Brooklyn, NY with interests in public policy, electoral politics, and data science. He has worked as an intern for an environmental nonprofit and an economic consulting firm. Adam enjoys playing Scrabble, reading surreal fiction, and playing D&D in his spare time.