Public concern over global warming fades

PUBLIC CONCERN OVER GLOBAL WARMING FADES…. American attitudes about the climate crisis are changing, and not for the better.

The survey, by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, found a sharp decline over the past year in the portion of Americans who see solid evidence that global temperatures are rising. According to the survey, conducted between Sept. 30 and Oct. 4 among 1,500 adults reached on cell phones and landlines, fewer respondents also see global warming as a very serious problem; 35% say that today, down from 44% in April 2008.

The survey also points to a decline in the proportion of Americans who say global temperatures are rising as a result of human activity. Just 36% say that currently, down from 47% last year.

A majority of Americans still support establishing emissions standards to address global warming, though the majority of the country haven’t even heard the phrase “cap and trade.”

But it’s the decline in those who believe the evidence that’s most distressing. What’s driving the shift?

Mara Gay has a good summary of competing explanations, but I think there are two main angles to keep an eye on.

The first has to do with partisanship. Matt Yglesias noted, “The header Pew put on the graphic notes that the decline is “across party lines.” But you should look at the magnitudes — the Republican line has fallen way further, and from a lower base, than the Democratic line. This is probably a rationalizing voter example where increased salience of the issue is bringing more Republicans into line with the beliefs espoused by their party’s leaders.”

Agreed. As recently as 2007. 62% of self-identified Republicans saw evidence of global warming. Two years later, that number has dropped to 35%. The more GOP leaders characterize climate change as an ideological/partisan issue — it’s only something liberal eggheads with their annoying “data” and “evidence” care about — the more the rank and file will agree. And with a certain cable news network toeing the Republican Party line, telling GOP partisans not to believe the science, it’s not too hard to understand the trend.

I’d just add, though, that some of the drop off may be the result of the issue fading from public attention. This year, much of the discourse has been focused on the economy, health care, and the wars. There’s been a debate on energy policy, but it’s struggled for attention.

Time will tell, of course, but if there’s a renewed push from policymakers to take this seriously, and the debate in the Senate on cap and trade intensifies, the poll numbers should improve as understand grows. Indeed, even with the shift in the wrong direction, the same data pointed to a public desire for action on the issue.

Americans, in other words, still want policymakers to act, even if there’s unnecessary skepticism about the climate trends.