Why Public Opinion On Climate Change Has Lost Momentum

By Jeneen Interlandi

Ed Kilgore has an interesting piece on TNR exploring some possible explanations for the recent Pew report, which found that the number of Americans who believe manmade global warming is real has dropped 14 percent from last year. His three contenders: the current economic crisis, the radicalization of the Republican Party in the wake of Obama's election and a "determined effort by the hard-core antenvironmental right to dominate the discussion and change its terms." (This includes their seizing upon the so-called 'climate-gate' scandal.) In the end, I think, all three probably play a role in the shifting opinion polls.

But there's another possible explanation that I think warrants some consideration: it's not that we Americans don't believe in global warming, it's that we don't really care about it. Kilgore gets at this a little bit when he discusses the obvious effect an economic downturn has on our priorities as a nation. Put simply: it's a lot harder to care about the fate of the planet when you're scared witless about losing your job. Kilgore cites some Gallup polls showing that, on paper at least, Americans do prioritize the environment in times of plenty. But what we say and what we do are often not the same, and when it comes down to it, I have serious doubts that most people care about the fate of the planet beyond a generation or two—and I think two is stretching it. Of course nobody wants to say that out loud, because here's what it sounds like "I believe that global warming is a problem, but it's not my problem, because I won't have to face the consequences." It sounds selfish. It is selfish. So instead we say "I'm not convinced global warming is real," or just "It's a complete hoax."

I know, there are some obvious counterpoints to make here. One is that for years now, environmentalists across the country have made preserving the planet for future generations a priority, to some considerable effect (we fixed that hole in the ozone, after all, didn't we?). The thing is, most people are not environmentalists. Most people still use incandescent light bulbs, leave unused cell-phone chargers plugged into the wall and let the faucet run while they brush their teeth.

The other counter-argument is that the effects of global warming are not some distant future threat, but the source of actual human calamity in the here and now. That's true if you live in Bolivia, where the disappearance of glaciers is already forcing some people from their homes, or in Somalia where prolonged droughts are hurting both crops and livestock. But in the U.S. food and water are still plentiful and million-dollar coastal homes are still comfortably perched over both our shining seas. Maybe when those edifices start crumbling the science behind global warming will start to look a little more plausible.

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