The world is watching Paris as world leaders and other interested parties (including a delegation from California) gather in France’s capital to negotiate collective (but voluntary) actions to address global climate change.

To policy leaders and advocates who are particularly concerned about climate change, the general lack of action both in the United States and elsewhere has been very frustrating.  And it is easy to see why.  In poll after poll, majorities say they are concerned about global climate change.  Yet, policymakers just collectively shrug.

This is one of those examples of what I like to call the “polling issue trap.”  While asking respondents about a singular issue (for example, “in your view, is global climate change a very serious problem, somewhat serious, not too serious, or not a problem?”) does reveal issue concern, it doesn’t reflect voting saliency, i.e. whether this a motivating issue when it comes to determining how one will vote.

To illustrate, take the most recent PPIC survey. In it, 57% of Californian adults say global climate change is a very serious problem. This, by itself, would suggest overwhelming support for climate change action. But while it shows concern, it doesn’t necessarily reveal motivation. To understand voter saliency, one must force respondents to prioritize among policy concerns. The same PPIC survey does just that by asking “thinking about the state as a whole, what do you think is the most important issue facing people in California today?”. Just 3% of Californian adults named the “environment, pollution, global warming.”

If you had just focused on the 57% data point or the 3% number, you’d have fallen into the “polling issue trap.”  The 57% number alone signifies enormous concern.  The 3% number would lead you to under-value the concern.  It is only together that you get a sense of how Californians process this policy concern.  Yes, it is considered a serious problem, but when it comes to making voting decisions, voters prioritize other issues.  Just another reminder that polling soundbites typically can’t be taken at face value.