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Nov. 2 2009 - 1:46 pm | 54 views | 2 recommendations | 9 comments

Global Warming Cooling

A Pew survey released in late October showed something rather striking: a 14 percentage point drop in the number of people who believe in global warming, since last year. That’s along with a 9 percentage point drop in the number of people who see global warming as a “very serious” issue.


How on earth could there be such a dramatic change from April of 2008 to October of 2009? That’s the question put forward in a new Pew release. While it offers no solid conclusions, two things are suggestive.

One, and this is probably obvious, concern over the economy has made people care way less about the environment:

Pew Research surveys show that as economic concerns have surged, fewer people view the environment as a top policy priority. In our annual survey on the public’s policy agenda, just 41% rated protecting the environment as a top priority; just a year earlier, 56% rated it as a top priority. Yet other issues also were overshadowed as more people focused on the economy and jobs. There were sharp declines as well in the proportions rating dealing with illegal immigration (down 10 points), reducing health care costs (10 points) and reducing crime (eight points) as top priorities for the president and Congress.

Of course, there’s no intrinsic reason that concern over the economy — even the opinion that the environment ought to be put on the back burner — should lead to less belief in global warming. But that does seem to be how our brains work a lot of the time. If I’m concerned about the economy, I have a lot less energy to concern myself with gay rights or pollution or civil liberties. After all, as a citizen, I spend a very limited time thinking about politics; if one thing has my attention, something else doesn’t. And if the environment’s suddenly not of much concern to me, well, there must be a reason, right? At least, that’s what I have to tell myself. So, I tell myself that the environment’s doing pretty well, it doesn’t need my attention. Global warming? Who even knows if it’s real!? Not a big deal either way.

What else might be in play here?

Two, Pew flags the possibility that an unusually cool summer might be part of the shift in opinion:

While the economic crisis may have had a role in the public’s shifting views on global warming, there also are other possible factors. For example, in some parts of the country this was an unusually cool summer — the National Climate Data Center classifies nine states, with roughly a sixth of the American population, as places with summer temperatures “much below normal.” People living in those states appear to be less likely than those living elsewhere (in states where temperatures were only somewhat below normal, near normal or above normal) to see solid evidence of global warming.


Now, as you can see above, this theory isn’t exactly bullet proof — at least as relates to Pew’s dataset (“because the surveys have been conducted at various times of year, rather than at the end of each summer”). But this theory does match up with the research I wrote up back in May, which found a correlation between people’s belief in global warming and whether it had been unseasonably hot or cold in their zip code. Specifically, the paper (PDF) found:

For each three degrees that local temperature rises above normal, Americans become one percentage point more likely to agree that there is ’solid evidence’ that the earth is getting warmer.

Or, in chart form:


The effect is most prominent among low-education voters and those not strongly attached to a party identification. If someone has high education or is a committed partisan, on the other hand, the weather has little effect on their beliefs.

The Democrats, therefore, are probably facing a “perfect storm” of public opinion forces arrayed against any attempt to pass major global warming legislation. Economic crisis + cool summer = no cap & trade.


3 T/S Member Comments Called Out, 9 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    Mr. Sager,

    I think the biggest predictor of one’s position on “global warming” (i.e. global climatic change) is in no same part determined by a how inconvenient it is to one’s life. Reducing GHGs sounds nice until one actually has to go out one’s way to do it. Another T/S blogger posted about a recent study that showed that dog’s have a larger carbon footprint than an SUV. This might suggest that getting rid of dogs, as opposed to SUVs, might be an effective policy to reduce GHGs (not really but follow me on this). Imagine if such a policy were to be suggest, much less enforced. Lots of dog lovers would suddenly cease to “believe” in global warming (I am not certain but I suspect cat lovers would become more likely to believe).

    The simple fact of the matter is that it is climatology is a really complex science, one without too many laboratory experiments, one that scientists themselves do not have the tightest grasp on, and it is really difficult to make it accessible to the average person. Unless people can experience something themselves, it is all very abstract. The example I use from my own life is the number of days of frost on my front lawn. When I first moved to my current house over 25 years ago, I could count on my lawn being dead for three or four months from daily frosts. I planted winter rye to keep things green when the St. Augustine was dead. Now, we get a few frosts in December but my St. Augustine is green year round now.

  2. collapse expand

    Or, we might want to consider the possibility that there is no Global Warming as a reason that people don’t believe in Global Warming.

  3. collapse expand


    There can be more than those reasons, and there are, why people don’t support “Cap-and-Trade.”

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    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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