More Lost Ground on Climate-Change Concern

It’s been a crummy year for environmentalists. First it was the leaked e-mails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit showing some questionable discussions among scientists about climate-change research. Then the Copenhagen summit ended with a big thud. And then Congress indicated it would trade an aggressive climate-change mitigation measure for a more diluted energy bill.

Piling on, Gallup is out with new numbers today showing that concern over climate change continues to recede. According to one of its surveys from earlier this month, almost half of the country (48 percent) is unmoved by climate-change warnings. A growing number are also newly skeptical that humans are causing the planet to change and think that the science isn’t as concrete as they once believed.

Surprisingly, the cause of the regression in public opinion isn’t entirely the about the hacked e-mails, although that certainly didn’t help. Skepticism about climate change has hovered in the 30 percent range for more than a decade. Last year, months before the CRU e-mails became public, the number of people not urgently concerned by a changing climate had risen to 41 percent. In the wake of the statistical snafus, the number has risen only slightly from there, to 48 percent. Here’s the graph.

It translates into lost ground for the environmental and science communities, who have worked over the past decade to firm up research and convince an apathetic public. But they still have a majority of the country on board. Even with 48 percent skeptical that climate-change threats are exaggerated, Gallup reports that 53 percent think that the effects of a changing climate have already begun, or will begin shortly.

The looming question here is why. Despite the advances in science and monitoring systems over the last decade, why has public opinion on climate urgency regressed so substantially. My colleague Jeneen Interlandi tackled this question in December, essentially arguing that when the going gets tough, it’s easier to just say the problem doesn’t exist rather than feel guilty that it does exist and you’re not doing anything about it.

On Jeneen’s point, I’d add another. The science on climate change was once generally agreed upon as airtight. For the most part, it still is. But the best measure of how much climate concern has infiltrated the national psyche is in how much the issue is being discussed in Washington. These days, that’s a lot. And anything being taken seriously in Washington means it has lobbyists on both sides of the debate. Numbers like these give us a pretty good idea of who’s winning.